When television news started out back in the 1950s it occupied less than a thirty-minute slot. Ten or fifteen minutes would be granted to local stations for their news and then the networks would say all there was to say about national and world news in the remaining fifteen to twenty minutes. There were very few advertisements during the news; it wasn't regarded as appropriate to sponsor news about floods and fires and political disasters. Life must have been simpler then.
Nowadays many television stations set apart ninety minutes for local news alone and that's just for the early evening news show. On March 17 1998 (St. Patrick's Day), we watched a local news show in Hartford for one hour from 5 to 6 p.m. and kept track of what seemed to be really news and what was -- well not news.
First of all during this one hour of news there were 35 advertisements. Among other things advertised there were ads for cars (sometimes competing car companies would follow nose to tailpipe) fast-food chains mutual funds feminine hygiene products cheese utility companies phone service shampoos and deodorants. Most of the ads were fast pacedcolorful slick and sometimes funny. They seemed to do a lot in their thirty seconds. Graphically they were the most interesting part of the hour. In addition there were ten advertisements apparently produced by the television station itself that advertised programsand services of the station -- sometimes featuring what was coming up later that evening sometimes touting the virtues of the station's news team and weather forecasters.
Besides these self-advertisements the news program was also littered with eight very brief "teasers" (we'll call them) announcing that "This is Connecticut's Newstation" and telling us what will happen "at the top of the hour" or "on LateLine, tonight at 11." "Wait'll you hear this" preceded more than one break for ads. In both half-hour segments of this one-hour news program there were "Forecast First" moments where the weather forecaster was apparently awakened from a nap to tell us that later on he was going to give us his weather predictions. He told us right then and there that it was sunny outside now but look out for later on tonight! (Details to follow, fifteen minutes later.) Incidentally the weather forecast itself when we finally got to it was exactly the same (with maybe a degree difference) at 6:20 as it had been at 5:50. It could just as well have been videotaped but it wasn't. There were also teasers for the sports commentator. He announced at two different times what he was going to tell us about fifteen or twenty minutes later. At least the sports news was different in the twohalf-hour segments.
Perhaps the most annoying moments in the news hour are the little moments of conviviality and chit-chat between members of the news team, the little asides of mutual congratulation and gratitude and commiseration (with the various victims in the day's news) that are supposed to make us see how wonderfully human the newscasters are. What must the fifteen-minute, get-it-done-and-get-out newscasters of the 50s think of all this?
Surprisingly only one portion of the news this evening from 6 to 6:30 repeated exactly what we had already seen during the 5:30 to 6 segment. Billed as a "follow-up" it was a videotaped redundancy. There were however several features that didn't exactly feel like news. "Covering Connecticut" amounted to several five- or ten-second blurbs on what prominent people had done that day across the state. "People in the News" was mostly about the shenanigans of Hollywood types, about a new film called Primary Colors that seems to mock the White House scandals and about the star of Titanic being upset because some pictures of him, naked, are being published by a magazine. There was the nightly announcement of the winning Lottery Numbers (perhaps this is indeed important news for some people!), and two segments about St. Patrick's Day parties going on in the capital city -- lots of people drinking lots of beer. A "Health Beat" segment told us about pheromonesand perfumes and "Business Beat" told us something about Kathie Lee Gifford's sweatshops.
Finally the news broke and there was a solemn and clearly labeled Editorial Comment complete with the suggestion that the news station was willing to entertain opposing viewpoints.
Whatever happened to the news? What we need to do now is to take a stopwatch to the news hour and determine how much of the time is spent actually reporting "hard news" the kind of thing that was put into that fifteen-minute segment during the early days of television news. We're willing to wager that over a one-hour news show there is considerably less than fifteen minutes occupied with the news. We can't say that our lives were simpler back then but apparently we had less time to spend watching nonsense.