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'

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'