Television: The News Machine

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The Independent Culture
Even by silly-season standards, the mink frenzy was notable. For days it has hardly been possible to switch on a news bulletin without seeing furry killers swarming around a Hampshire farm, while cameras and reporters swarmed after them.

In Hampshire, you might have found it hard to believe that television news is in decline. It was the same in Washington last month. Twenty minutes after two Capitol policemen were shot - I happened to be walking by - hundreds of frenzied young men and women jostled every passer-by for information, while stressed reporters gabbled into dozen of cameras. And a couple of hundred yards away, dozens of scanners wait on permanet vigil for witnesses in the Monica case to arrive at the Federal courthouse.

Yet the fundamental fact about television news is that audiences are declining. They are not yet in free fall. But television news executives everywhere are secretly terrified And they don't know what to do. More specifically, political news and international news, traditionally the heart of news bulletins, are endangered species. Look for more stories about mink, runaway pigs and stained dresses, more gimmicky sets, more infotainment.

Traditional current affairs programmes are either dead, like This Week, or being revamped. There is, says flatly a top ITV executive who was one of the most successful current affairs producers of his generation, "no demand for that kind of current affairs". Instead, the demand is for leisure, lifestyle and "docusoaps" about traffic wardens and hotel managers.

A "big story" will bring the audiences back for a night or a week. BBC news has reached one night peaks of 11 million, Diana's funeral was watched by most of the country. But on an ordinary night the BBC averages 5.2 million viewers for the Nine O'Clock News, down from 6 million five years ago. ITN's News at Ten is watched by 6 million, or perhaps a little fewer according to some sources, down from 6.5 million five years ago. Newsnight is barely over one million viewers. Channel Four News claims 776,000, down from 900,000 five years ago. Channel Five News 500,000, and Sky News between 250,000 and 500,000. Audiences for news and current affairs are melting away. They are also getting older. The Sunday politics "ghetto" is largely watched by viewers with bus passes.

More important, producers, schedulers and television executives are losing interest in political news. Ted Turner's right-hand man at CNN told me casually that their domestic bulletin will be concentrating less on politics, more on health stories. Will the BBC be far behind? A senior executive there with responsibility for politics says the assumption among many of his younger colleagues is simply that "politics is boring".

Why are viewers switching off political news? And does it matter? Everyone has a different explanation, from the end of the Cold War by way of growing affluence, the multichannel environment and the coming of the remote control, which has bred a generation of restless zappers. Some say women producers are increasingly pushing the agenda towards human values, and away from politics.

For the 75 years of the "short 20th century", as the historian Eric Hobsbawm called it, a single narrative connected war, revolution, depression, more war and Cold War. The news touched everyone's life. The question was: are we going to make it? The world isn't necessarily safer now than it was before 1989, but the dangers - global warming, world poverty, nuclear proliferation and epidemics - seem more remote, less immediate and too complicated.

Then, the way we live has changed. Once, watching the news was a family event, like Sunday lunch. Fewer people live in those sorts of family now, and those that do have other things to do: music, sports, travel, shopping.

And attitudes have changed. Once, we were quite happy to be told what to think by announcers, then presenters, authoritative or avuncular. Now we don't want to be told. We want to choose, to be interactive, to be entertained. We are more impatient, more easily bored, quicker to switch to another channel if nothing is happening that very moment on the channel we're on. Talking heads again? Zap!

Does it matter? Isn't it good that the citizen/ viewer/consumer should exercise his and her sovereign right to choice? Well, of course. But there are at least two implications of the decline of audiences for news that ought to worry us.

The lesser concern is that the decline of news indirectly threatens the future of the BBC and therefore the structure of the whole British industry. The BBC needs mass audiences to justify the licence fee. The habit of watching BBC news and current affairs used to hold those mass audiences together. One reason why the BBC's ratings have held up remarkably well is that for many BBC1 and BBC2 are the default channels people turn to first.

The larger reason why the decline of news matters, or rather the decline in the habit of steady watching, to be replaced by occasional feeding frenzies when a war starts, a princess dies or a president falls from grace, is because whether we like it or not, the news media are now the forum in which our societies take their decisions.

The news business, even for the "non-profit" BBC (tell that to the Teletubbies), has always been just that: a vital part of society's nervous system, and at the same time an industry that needs to earn its financial support one way or another. News media have become an ever more important part of the public space where we take our collective decisions, at elections or at other times.

Yet never have they been more commercially minded, never more impatient of the serious, the complex or the zap-inviting. It's just that we need to remember that, if audiences switch off, it won't just be the news business that will go into decline. It will be the political system and the society as well.

Godfrey Hodgson worked as a reporter for 'This Week', as the presenter of 'The London Programme' and as a presenter of Channel Four News. He is now the director of the Reuter Foundation Programme for journalists at Oxford University. He will write regularly on factual television.