Consider the results of a two-year study of a sample audience in Albany County, N.Y., that watched local and network television programs. Three-quarters of the 240 persons questioned said that jokes by the people delivering the news "make the news easier to take."
More than half of those interviewed said they liked television news because often it is very "funny." Forty per cent of those who watch the late evening news programs claimed that the shows were helpful in inducing sleep.
Sixty per cent said television news made them realize their own lives were not so bad. And one-third said watching the news made them feel "more secure and reassured."
These are the major conclusions reached by Dr. Mark R. Levy, a lecturer in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. Levy, who also has worked at Newsweek magazine and NBC News, conducted the survey in October and November 1975, on a grant from the National Association of Broadcasters.
As depressing as these statistics may be to people working in television news or just watching it, Levy discovered something else that might give them some reason for optimism: Despite viewer preference for news that was funny, relaxing or soporific, nearly 70 per cent also said that television news does not provide enough background information on complicated, important issues.
I don't see much of a contradiction in all this. People are telling us, by ratings and by polls such as Levy's, that they have become bored by the conventional style of television news.
It has become pompous, stuffy, solemn and obsessed with coverage that has absolutely no bearing on, or meaning for, the lives of people who watch it.
As they watch the news being dished up by young men and women who apparently learned how to use a hair-dryer before they mastered a typewriter, viewers apparently want something else. Namely, amplification and explanation of complicated issues that touch their lives.
That strikes me as providing a marvelous opportunity for the networks to satisfy this need by creasing to be "wire service with pictures." (That is a favorite expression of network anchormen, usually used during interviews conducted on their way to the bank, in explaining why nightly news shows are not better. "Well, you see, all we are is a wire service with pictures.")
Network evening news programs are asolute carbon copies, and they are absolutely dull. To paraphrase George Wallace's line about the Democratic and Republican parties, there is not a dime's worth of difference between them. Only the people who present the news are different.
These programs rush you along from one disaster to another: air crashes, earthquakes, floods - or manmade disasters, such as government officials making statements. Only when a Charles Kuralt comes on (or a Heywood Hale Broun in those muchmissed Saturday night sports essays on CBS), does this frantic competition for pompous and meaningless horedom cease and the news come close to approximating our own lives.
I am not using Levy's data to make an argument for the expansion of the bubblehead mindlessness of most local news programs to the national level. It is offered instead as a goal to the people responsible for the network news programs to step back for a moment an dreassess their own definition of news.
Someone once said that news is whatever makes people say: "Gee whiz." That's not a bad working definition. And in seeking to satisfy that obvious desire on the part of people who watch news, there need be no diminution of either taste or commitment on the part of network news personnel.
But there has to be a re-evaluation of the kind of news that interests people. Newspapers have started to recognize this. Why not the network news departments?