In all the flap and babble over extending the evening network news programs from 30 minutes to an hour, has anyone bothered to ask the people who actually watch the news whether this is a change they endorse? Well, here I am, a real, live TV news watcher, and I am happy to volunteer as a one-man survey -- the result of which is a resounding, emphatic "no."
The expansion of the evening news program is being represented by its advocates at the networks as a "service" to a breathlessly expectant public. Any way you slice it, that's baloney. Expanded news is a service to the egos, and they are very large ones, of the men who run the networks and their news departments. Going to an hour has little to do with news content and much to do with "prestige" as it is meted out in the expense-account eateries where network executives meet, greet and compete.
The argument they're trying to shove down our (and their affiliates') throats is, in effect, that more news is good news; for this we are supposed to give up "M*A*S*H" reruns and "Family Feud." Aided and abetted over the years by the Federal Communications Commission, the TV news people have expanded their empires by insinuating into the public consciousness the notion that broadcast news is a "public service" -- one that, coincidentally, brings them millions in ad revenues. But the bold fact is that, except on those rare and dramatic occasions when television interrupts its regular prgramming to cover a breaking news story, TV news is largely show biz; consider the testimony of Bryant Gumbel, the suave talking head who presently will bask in the reflective glory of Jane Pauley on the "Today" show, and who says he is transferring from "host of a show that happens to be sports to host of a show that happens to be entertainment news."
Television does not lend itself to thoughtful, analytical news coverage -- at least not as we have traditionally defined such coverage, based on our reading of newspapers and magazines. This is certainly not to say that newspapers are inherently superior to television, or that newspaper writers are inherently superior to someone who reads the news on the air; to the contrary, I admire television enormously, watch it often, and passionately envy its rich and famous news people.
But television is not a medium for ideas or even analyses. For one thing, there just isn't time; a television correspondent is fortunate to get two minutes of air time for a story on which a newspaper competitor may be free to devote several columns of type. For another, the very nature of television studio production makes broadcasting often artificial and self-conscious, and emphasizes its show-biz character; the lights are too hot, the stage is too bright, too many cameras are zeroing in on you, too many people are banging around in the background -- and it is virtually impossible to conduct a serious, civilized conversation.
The most important consideration, though, is that television is more interested in pictures than in words -- a truism now demonstrated by the hegemony of the picture-happy Roone Arledge at ABC news. In the competition among stories for air time, pictures carry at least as much weight as content -- especially on the vapid, ambulance-chasing local news shows. On television, the reporter as "personality" is at least as important as the story he or she covers. That's why pictures of a person being interviewed or an event taking place are constantly interrupted by pictures of the reporter, holding a mike and nodding sagely; the show is as interested as promoting its reporter as it is in covering the news, and few reporters have been known to object to this.
Since what TV news best knows how to do is to give us these pictures, it can safely be predicted that more news would mean more picutres. Beyond that, who knows? The TV people are talking a lot these days about the "service" they would provide with 60-minute news programs, but they aren't saying much about what they would actually do with those 60 minutes. Perhaps -- indeed, I'd venture probably -- that's because they don't have the foggiest idea. Probably they are aware, in those dark and lonely hours when the lights have been dimmed and the cameras stilled, that what they are likely to come up with is simply more of the same.
One among them who is willing to say as much is David Brinkley, whose words always command attention and respect. In a recent interview with the Washington Journalism Review, he remarked:
"There's a great deal of thinking that needs to be done about changing television news to an hour. If I had to do an hour tomorrow, I wouldn't quite know what to do with it. It is commonly thought, wrongly, that in a half-hour you can't cover all the news. A way to visualize it is to take a newspaper -- a good paper -- and go from the front page to the back, and take out everything you cannot put on a network television news program. You begin by taking the local news, you take out the sports, you take out the furniture store ads, full-page grocery ads. You take out all the little columns on how to grow tulips and feed goldfish, you take out the editorial page, you take out the letters to the editor, you take out all those pages of stock-market figures and reports, you take out the local features, and what is left is remarkably little because a newspaper may be an inch thick but it doesn't mean there's an inch of news in it. It means there's an inch of paper there.
"When you go through it and count the stories that can be used on a network news program, there aren't that many. And that is not to say that television even covers all of that. If a story is covered adequately by television standards, in two minutes, I'm not sure it'd be improved by running it four minutes."
Exactly. Double time would not mean double quality or double information. Inflate two minutes on congressional budget action to four minutes, and what would we get? Seventy-five extra seconds for four more senators to honk and wheeze, 30 more seconds of David Stockman, and 15 more seconds of the reporter's pretty face. I guarantee it.
That's because we journalists, whether we play with typewriters or microphones, are not discernably more imaginative than the rest of the populace. Give us more space or time in which to do what we do, and we will simply do more of it, in the same way we've always done it. Right now, after the laxatives and the deodorants have had their say, the network news people have 22 minutes to tell us about the day's events; double that to 44 and all we will get is more stories, and longer ones. But not necessarily better ones.
Yes, TV news people, when they have the time and resources, can do a story brilliantly; doubters are referred to the superb "Sunday Morning" program on CBS. But up against breaking news, TV reaches for the pictures and the interviews and the talking heads. Thirty minutes of that a day are enough. Leave me my "M*A*S*H."