Media: TV news has to play a generation game

Now that there are so many sources of news, is network TV strictly for old-timers?
LISTENING TO the Labour MP Gerald Kaufman and the former BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey criticise BBC News 24 over recent weeks made me think back to the revelation of watching TV news in the United States. From the moment I moved to Washington, in the late 1980s, I realised there was something strange about the main evening news battleground on the big three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, but I couldn't quite work out what it was.

Was it the fact that on ABC's World News Tonight the "world" outside north America rarely got a look in? Partly. Was it that, out of every 30-minute news show, there was only eight minutes of news because the rest was commercials or promotions? Yes, but there was something more.

It was the commercials themselves. They all seemed aimed at older people. There were the Centrum Silver adverts for a diet supplement for the over- 50s ("It's Great to be Silver"). Then there were the haemorrhoid ads and ads for laxatives or incontinence pads. Over on the rock music station MTV, in contrast, were ads for tampons and Coca-Cola.

If you start thinking about US television less in terms of programme content and more as an advertising delivery system, you recognise that American network TV news has a special appeal for the post-menopausal, incontinent, constipated and sick.

"Network news is for geezers," one of my American TV news colleagues explained with refreshing candour, meaning it is for older people. The biggest story in the American media for the past decade has been precisely this problem. How do you pursue the chimera of the younger news-viewer or newspaper reader without alienating that increasing proportion of the audience which is ageing? Should you? If you don't, won't your viewers and readers eventually die off?

A couple of years ago Time magazine reported that the percentage of American adults reading a daily paper had fallen from 78 per cent in 1970 to 64 per cent in 1995. In 1981 the big three TV networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC could boast that every night, 41 per cent of all American homes tuned in to their early evening news shows. By 1995 that was down to 26 per cent. What has changed? Well, three changes all point to increased competition. First, 24-hour TV news networks, CNN, MSNBC and FOX, are increasingly competitive and at moments of crisis, like the Lewinsky scandal, pile on viewers from modest bases. Second, the Internet has transformed how many of us get access to information. And third, talk radio has become the most popular radio format in the US, surpassing rock or country and western.

Bill Adams, professor of public administration at George Washington University, and editor of a news sheet called Talk Daily, puts it this way: "Roughly one out of every five or six Americans listens to talk radio every 24 hours. It has a big audience. More people listen to Rush Limbaugh than read The Washington Post, The New York Times, The LA Times and Chicago Tribune put together and doubled."

Now of course, Britain is different... except where it is the same. The BBC's Radio 5 Live was derided at the time of its launch for combining news and sport in an accessible way. It is now Sony Radio Station of the Year. BBC Online has become a favourite Internet site. And News 24 has grown from nothing 15 months ago to a news source seen by more than five million viewers a week. If it had been launched in the private sector by a Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch, there would be ads trumpeting it as the "fastest growing TV news network in Britain".

Trying to make three state-of-the-art computer systems drive News 24 has produced some uncomfortable results. My personal favourite was the night I read that Boris Yeltsin had been admitted to hospital, and our computer system decided to run pictures of the BSE crisis. I am talking about Boris Yeltsin. You are seeing a butcher chopping up a sheep's carcass.

While such cock-ups have become less frequent, the BBC could have taken the strategic decision to forget about all of it - no Radio 5, no News 24, no Online - and to do what the BBC has always done. But if you do what you have always done, you don't always get what you always got.

In a society where we now work, shop and play 24 hours a day, only those who think that network news is for geezers want to be told when they can watch it on TV. Even the stodgiest BBC manager has seen the figures pointing to a slow death. They show that houses with cable and satellite services in Britain watch far less BBC news than those of us stuck with the five terrestrial channels. The prospect for the BBC would be to become, to put it in a brutally ageist way, your grandad's news, fine for a while, but eventually driven to apeing American TV as a superb service for the infirm, but with little to offer younger viewers.

I am a fan of Sky and CNN, partly because the leadership of Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner spotted all this long ago. But now Britain has a choice. We can go the Kaufman or Hussey route, which means that as a nation we accept that only American-owned 24-hour news stations will work, because we have become so third-rate we cannot afford a British alternative. Maybe, like our car industry and half the supposedly "British" national newspapers published in London, we no longer care whether TV news channels are foreign- owned. Personally, I do care. The risk is not that we cannot do it but that we will not fund it sufficiently to make it truly competitive. Britain can and does compete as a world player in TV news. We can produce news for your grandchildren as well as your grandparents. Just watch us.

Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC News 24 and author of `The United States of Anger'