Inside the Media
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Below are excerpts from the Networks chapter of
Winning with the News Media
Copyright © 2005, 2001, 1999, 1996
By Clarence Jones
NetworksScattered Nightly Audience
Batters the Money Machine
Once upon a time, in a media land far, far away, there were three very large broadcast television networks. They were incredibly profitable. Gold mines. Each night in homes across the land, 75 per cent of the natives huddled before the tube, warmed by the glow of the prime time network shows.
The tribe has scattered now, drawn to other sources of news and entertainment. As this book goes to press, there are about 300 broadcast, cable and satellite networks. The originals have evolved into different animals. ABC, CBS and NBC make more money owning TV stations than they do from network operations.
And Then There Were Four
There are now four major TV broadcast networks. Out of nowhere, in a dozen years, Fox is head-to-head with the original Big Three. PN (the former UPN) and WB are growing.
The prime time (eight to 11 p.m.) broadcast audience has drifted away from broadcast programming. To other shows on cable TV; to television programs delivered by satellite; to video games; to movies on videotape or DVD, and to the Internet.
To understand this next section, you need to be clear on the industry terminology. A broadcast network delivers its programs by broadcasting through the air, using a network of local stations to transmit those shows. Satellite systems also transmit programs through the air, but the industry doesnít call them broadcasters.
Programming provided by a broadcast network can also be delivered by cable, satellite, telephone lines, or the Internet. Cable and satellite network programming (like A&E or The History Channel) are not broadcast by local stations. The quality of broadcast signals for most homes is always inferior to the picture delivered by cable or satellite.
So to keep broadcasters competitive, Congress and the FCC dictated that their signals must also be transmitted by cable systems in their local communities. It is called "must-carry."
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The Prime Time Audience
In 1953, three out of every four homes in America were watching one of the Big Three networks in prime time (8 to 11 p.m. east and west coast, 7 to 10 p.m. central). America was enthralled. By 1960, the newness wore off, but more than half the homes were still tuned in to the three networks in the evening.
How things have changed.
In the 2003-2004 season, only 21.6 per cent of homes in the U.S. were watching the original networks in prime time. Network newcomers Fox, PN and WB captured another 9.3 per cent.
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The chapter charts the declining nightly news audience for each network from 1970 to 2003 and explains where the audience has gone.
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Where Did the Audience Go?
The appetite for news has actually grown, not diminished. But there are now hundreds of specialized TV sources. Like business news, sports, weather, home and garden channels.
We are watching the same kind of audience shift that killed national, general-interest magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers while the number of specialty magazines grew.
This is also a factor in diminishing daily newspaper circulation. Some people buy a newspaper only to read about sports. So why not get much more of that news from a source that only covers your narrow interest. For the same reason, local TV news sportscasters and meteorologists may also be endangered species.
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New Owners, New Goals
By the late 1990s, with the major network audience split and profits down, the networks were gobbled up by corporations with a different kind of heritage. For the most part, the people who run these companies have no journalistic background. Their primary goal in life has always been to make money for the corporation and its stockholders.
They found new ways to make their broadcast and cable properties money machines. What is happening now is a reformation, where the corporations that own the major radio and TV networks will once again reach a very large national audience. But it will be split among the corporationís many outlets and subsidiaries.
The news segment of their operation is a tiny niche.
Newspapers, aware of their own dire financial positions, are forming alliances with the big communications conglomerates, just to stay in the game. "Convergence" is the term being used when one company provides news in many formats.
The Insider & the Gatekeepers
Journalists in this culture have always been described as gatekeepers, choosing which stories they will allow the public to read, hear or view. The crucial issue now is how the new media owners will handle news that could help or harm the mother corporation.
The movie The Insider was based on real events. A tobacco insider leaked documents to 60 Minutes that showed tobacco executives had known for years their product was addictive and deadly.
Great news story. All the top tobacco company CEOs had sworn before a Congressional Committee that they did not believe tobacco was addictive. A huge national lawsuit against the tobacco industry was pending.
But because the sale of CBS was being negotiated, corporate lawyers prevented 60 Minutes from broadcasting the story. They felt the story would result in a major lawsuit, and they were afraid Viacom might back out of the deal. So the insider took his information to The Wall Street Journal. The Journal ran with it.
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