Making TV News Relevant To a New Generation

Television stations - with their aging Ken and Barbie news formats - are under intense pressure to reinvent themselves for a media-savvy generation unencumbered by nostalgia or loyalty.

In today's multichannel, subscription TV universe, broadcast antennas are no longer needed for national program distribution. Local news and information, once the glue that bonded communities and guaranteed station profits, is growing increasingly fragmented. The future of traditional broadcasting is as secure as quicksand.

No matter how profitable local terrestrial broadcasting may be today-one wonders-on its current course, how relevant the business will be a decade from now. Will those great local broadcasting brands mean anything to a generation weaned on the Internet and an endless string of nondescript 24/7 news networks?


This is not gloom-and-doom speculation. Already, there are clear signs that the dominance of television news is eroding-with increasing numbers of young people turning elsewhere for their information.

New information on the 2004 presidential campaign from the Pew Research Center illustrates the problem. The Internet, a relatively minor source for campaign news in 2000, is now on par with such traditional outlets as public television broadcasts, Sunday morning news programs and the weekly news magazines.

Young people, by far the hardest-to-reach segment of the political news audience, are abandoning mainstream sources and increasingly citing alternative outlets, including comedy shows such as Comedy Central's "Daily Show" and NBC's "Saturday Night Live," as their source for election news.

Today's fractionalized media environment, according to the new data, has taken the heaviest toll on local news, network TV news and newspapers.

Four years ago, nearly half of Americans (48 percent) said they regularly learned something about the presidential campaign from local TV news, more than any other news category. Local TV still leads, but now a declining 42 percent say they routinely learn about the campaign from local television programming.

Declines among nightly network news and newspapers-the other leading outlets in 2000-have been even more pronounced. Network news took a 10-point hit, while newspapers suffered a nine-point loss.

Based on interviews with 1,506 adults from Dec. 19 through Jan. 4, the new report from the non-profit Pew group shows that cable news networks like CNN and Fox News have achieved only modest gains since 2000 as a regular source for campaign news (38 percent now, 34 percent in 2000) . But as a consequence of the slippage among other major news sources, cable now trails only local TV news as a regular source for campaign information.

In several key demographic categories-young people, college graduates and wealthy Americans-cable is the leading source for election news. But relative gains for the Internet are also especially notable. Although 13 percent of Americans regularly learn something about the election from the Internet, up from nine percent at this point in the 2000 campaign, another 20 percent say they sometimes get campaign news from the Internet.


The bottom line is that television broadcasters-both network and local-are steadily losing young viewers for their news programming. Just 23 percent of Americans age 18-29 say they regularly learn something about an the election from the nightly network news, down from 39 percent in 2000. The figure for local TV news is down 13 percent.

We won't argue with those who follow the elections of 2004 through the filter of comedy programming. In contrast, however, those who learn about the campaign from the Internet have proven to be considerably more knowledgeable than the average TV viewer, including those that watch TV news.

Even with the current viewer shifts, television still hangs on as the public's main source of campaign news. Newspapers, radio and the Internet remain secondary. The big question for broadcasters, however, is can television stop the bleeding, reverse the trend and stay on top in the future?

One way for television not to retain young viewers is the trend toward obvious political bias in news. The young are turned off by it, the Pew survey found.

Overall, about as many Americans now say news organizations are biased in favor of one of the two main political parties as say there is no bias in election coverage (39 vs. 38 percent). This marks a major change from previous surveys taken since 1987, when 62 percent thought election coverage was free of partisan bias.

It may come as no surprise that Democrats believe that coverage of the campaign is tilted in favor of the Republicans (29 percent now, 19 percent in 2000). Four-in-ten Republicans (42 percent), however, see news coverage of the campaign as biased in favor of Democrats.

We are now a divided nation, from our politics to our choices of media. Can television-as it once did-reunite us again as a community? Or is that notion as antiquated now as the analog technology we're trying to relegate to the dustbin of history? This is one vote that remains to be decided.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.