TV Can’t Thrive As Phony ‘Three-Legged Dog’

Jeff Jarvis and David Smith, the two keynoters at TVNewsCheck's NewsTECHForum in New York this week, offered the prescription for a broadcasting renaissance: revamped news content with "true, human" voices and a new broadcast standard that can keep pace in a "fast-track world."

It’s time for some “productive panic” in TV news, said Jeff Jarvis, one of the keynote speakers at our NewsTECHForum this week  By that, he meant that before things get really bad for TV news, its producers at the networks and stations ought to start ripping up some of the old ways of doing things and replacing them with the new.

First of all, I should say that Jarvis is worth listening to. He is a professor and director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

But don’t dismiss him as an out-of-touch academic. He has spent a full career is all aspects of print media as a reporter, columnist, TV critic, newspaper executive and consultant helping publishers meet the digital challenge.

And having read his most recent book, a collection of essays really (Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News), I can tell you he is also a one-man clearinghouse of what’s going on in digital media. He knows what’s new and worthwhile and how it might be applicable to traditional media open to reinventing themselves. He can translate. He can talk about new media in ways the old media can understand.

In his 45-minute talk on Tuesday, Jarvis promised not to bash TV news, but, of course, he did. He had to. What patient is going to listen to the doctor, if he doesn’t first accept that he is sick?

TV news’ basic problem is that its audience is old and literally dying off, he said, and it is doing nothing to attract the young people accustomed to the immediacy and social interaction of digital media.


One of the old media’s misconceptions is that young people don’t watch TV news because they don’t care about news, he said. “No. Wrong! Young people care urgently about their world.”

But they shun the old news media because it is inauthentic, he said. It’s one of the paradoxes of TV news, he said. “It is driven by personality, yet the personalities we invent are then fake. They’re not real. They’re plasticized for the sake of an idea of mass.”

The fake personalities along with such conventions as staging B-roll footage and sanitizing the newsgathering process tacitly undermines the credibility of TV news and drives away the young and discriminating viewers of all ages, he said.

There  is a “huge opportunity” for the network or station that provides a “true, human voice,” Jarvis said.

How huge?

To Jarvis, Vice Media is the model for how TV news can be done in the digital age. And given what A&E paid for a 10% stake in Vice this summer, it is worth around $2.5 billion.

Founder Shane Smith has found a way to tell stories in a voice that matters to the young, Jarvis said. “It’s not the plastic voice.”

I’m with Jarvis on the need of greater authenticity in TV news. Despite its insistence on objectivity and ethical standards, is there any doubt that much of TV news gives off a phony vibe?

It’s a long-standing industry joke. When Will Ferrell spoofs TV anchors and reporters, they laugh along because they see themselves. And before Ron Burgundy, there was Ted Baxter. I rarely get though a newscast without an eye roll or two.

Now, there is nothing wrong with looking good on TV. But the makeup, the hair-dos and sharply tailored clothing have now become metaphors for the artificiality of TV news. They tend to put distance between the broadcasters and the audience rather than connote competence and engender trust.

Today’s formulaic way of presenting news is old fashioned and, so long as broadcasters are content with attracting old audiences, it will do. But if they want to draw a new audiences — this generation and the next one, they had better find those “true, human voices” and let the viewers in a bit on how the news is made.

I didn’t agree with all Jarvis had to say. The thing that really stopped me was his off-hand assertion that with the advent of the Internet “now suddenly everyone has a printing press, everyone has a broadcast tower.”

That’s just not true.

Right now, the Internet seems to be open to anybody interested in publishing a story or photo or broadcasting a video. But in fact it is not. Access to it is controlled by handful of giant telecommunications corporations. And you have to pay for that access, by the way.

Which brings me to our other NewsTechForum keynoter, the equally provocative David Smith, CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group.

In making his case for why the industry should adopt a new, more powerful, broadcast transmission standard, Smith said that he, too, is concerned about a prospect of a few telecom giants — a cable company and two wireless companies — controlling distribution of all content in the country.

“That troubles me as a private citizen, somebody concerned about the maintenance of democracy in this country, to think that, with no net neutrality, you have three individual companies who [can] control, throttle, roadblock anything they want, anytime they want.

“I think that is a scary place to be.”

I’ll say. I can’t predict what the Internet oligopoly will do if allowed to control the distribution of all news, information and entertainment. Will they be good stewards? Will they be even-handed and brave in the face of pressure to censor?

And I’m not sure if the government is the solution. Will it be a wise regulator that insures equal access to the Internet? Will it allow the Internet to evolve so that that some Internet content providers are more equal than others?

And when things get really ugly, can we trust the government not to  censor the Internet, cut off speech that it feels is not in the public interest or is a threat to national security?

In an uncertain world, we need more than just virtual broadcast towers as Jarvis suggests. We need real steel-and-wire broadcast towers operated by independent companies and individuals with a strong First Amendment tradition.

We need broadcasting. In a free society, redundancy in media is a powerful virtue. I would hope that printing presses continue to roll, too.

Smith certainly believes that the nation needs broadcasting, but he also questions whether it can survive without a new broadcast standard that reliably reaches smartphone and tablets as well as the basement TV set with rabbit ears.

Without that new standard, he said, broadcasting is “essentially a three-legged dog in a four-legged dog, fast-track world.” That’s both colorful and true.

So there you have it, the prescription for a broadcasting renaissance: revamped news content that takes into account the sensibilities and expectations of people reared in the digital age and a new broadcast standard that can keep pace with all other media.

A commitment to it would be a fine resolution for the New Year.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (2)

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Angie McClimon says:

December 19, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Everything is sanitized because heaven forbid we offend someone. People are becoming thin-skin, coddled babies.

Brian Hegre says:

January 4, 2015 at 10:19 pm

Snippet from article: “Smith said that he, too, is concerned about a prospect of a few telecom giants – a cable company and two wireless companies – controlling distribution of all content in the country” Isn’t the government doing this right now – restricting what can be put on broadcast television with treats of pulling broadcast licenses? Also what is not mentioned is that network/affiliate program distribution is out dated, and all local stations are only local a few hours a day.

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