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Published: Sunday, 6/15/2003

This just in: TV newscasts lose their identity

In a former life I worked for an O-and-O (network owned and operated) radio station, two network news organizations, and three network television affiliates - two of whom were eventually bought by two different networks. Moving from place to place - a tried and true way to advance career and market size in the electronic media - exposed me to varying news missions and management styles. But despite the differences, there was a homogenized look and feel about all of them.

TV consultants made their mark on the television news industry long ago, not only with on-air style and performance makeovers but substantive product changes as well. The way the news was written, shot, edited, and presented, was often done by design to boost specific demographics coveted by advertisers.

Want more women watching? Trade crime-heavy news formats for more parenting, and “does Botox really work” stories. Need more male viewers with dispensable incomes? Bring out the heavy guns and add lots of sex appeal.

The more trivial the stories the better. The one-size-fits-all newscast appeared in many television newsrooms across the country. Over nearly 20 years in the business I witnessed the resulting change that a few decision-makers made to replace quality television journalism with lowest common denominator infotainment.

The recent Federal Communications Commission's ruling relaxing media ownership rules will only exacerbate the problem. If you thought local television news all looked the same before, just wait.

Soon enough the local news you see on one station may actually be the same aired on another. Instead of several news outlets there may be one megaphone supplying all the information. Corporate media just got the green light from the FCC to monopolize the local broadcast spectrum even further.

The broadcast frequencies that are supposed to belong to “we the people” are increasingly being bought and sold by a handful of media moneybags who alone have the resources to expand their empires and exert control over the market.

Now, the federal agency entrusted with promoting the public interest of our airwaves has allowed huge media corporations to go on a shopping spree to advance their interests, their profits, and the wealth of their shareholders.

Mammoth media players like AOL Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, and Fox parent company News Corp. don't give a damn what local-interest programming is aired in Podunk as long as it makes a profit.

In the conglomerate-dominated media markets, news is a cost-effective commodity that must compete with, say, a firm's TV network, or music division, or film studio.

That inevitably means smaller newsroom staffs wielding less autonomy and editorial control than before. It means covering less local news with less controversy and repackaging the same information for more than one news outlet. It's already being done in some TV markets where one source supplies local news to two different newscasts on two different stations.

Look what uniform radio programming - produced in one location and presented as fill-in-the-blank hometown fare for stations across the country - has done to erase the local identities of community radio stations.

Imagine the same thing happening to local television as corporate media control of the airwaves becomes more concentrated and local sources for information and ideas shrinks.

Such concentration of electronic media power is a disturbing development in a democracy that depends on many voices and viewpoints. What happens when the free marketplace of ideas upon which informed self-government rests is capped by vast media companies calling the shots?

But expect the steady decline of broadcast industry standards to continue and even accelerate with the FCC's capitulation to corporate broadcast licensees and abdication of its responsibilities to the public.



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