Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Which came first, network news or public's short attention span?

A principal reason for the decline by half of network evening news ratings is the public’s short attention span. That’s what former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw told CNN’s Howard Kurtz on his “Reliable News” program Sunday while discussing the low ratings endured by the CBS Evening News under anchor Katie Couric.

Said Mr. Brokaw:

Also, the CBS News division had taken some hits. They weren’t as strong as they had been earlier. So I think it was a combination of all of those things. One of the penalties that she pays or anyone pays in this business anymore is that the attention span of the country is so short on all of these matters. [emphasis added]

Mr. Brokaw, perhaps the best anchor of the post-Cronkite generation, may be both right and wrong. Whether the brevity of the stories produced the short attention span or the short attention span produced the brevity is the sort of chicken-and-egg question philosophers and lawyers love. But rarely do those involved in network news admit to their roles in creating a public less capable of sustained, serious thought. Mr. Brokaw is a thoughtful man, and he should understand this.

The newscasts’ ratings have fallen from roughly a 15 share to a 6 or 7 share in the past 25 years, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study. The average evening news viewer is 60 years old (meaning it’s me), well outside the target demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds the advertisers crave. The audience of the evening news is literally dying, and the younger folks aren’t tuning in — because it was never their habit to do so.

But the lengths of stories on the nightly news do not lend themselves to full, articulate reporting. So why should anyone tune in? Is it just what they’re used to getting? (I know, I know: We can argue about the meaning of “full” and “articulate” another time.) The stories are not necessarily “dumbed down,” but they are short stories. They cannot be fully fleshed representations of reality.

Nearly half — 42 percent — of network evening news stories are 40 seconds or less. And 48 percent are between 90 seconds and 120 seconds long, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study. So the stories do not require a long attention span by the viewers. The short duration of the stories feeds the perception of short attention span. So what came first? The short story or the inattentive viewer?

The content of the stories, and their quality, may also reflect that perception of the short attention span.

That study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism — “The State of the News Media 2004” — also assessed the content of the nightly network newscasts:

Looked at another way, if you watched a commercial nightly newscast every weeknight for a month — some 10 hours of programming — you would have seen:

• Less than a minute about culture and the arts
• Less than a minute on family and parenting
• About four minutes on the environment
• Less than five minutes about transportation
• Slightly less than seven minutes about education
• About 14 minutes on healthcare
• About 16 minutes of crime
• About 22 minutes on accidents and disasters
• About 74 minutes on government matters
• About 97 minutes on foreign affairs

How does this news agenda compare to Page A-1 of America’s newspapers?

That study is nearly 4 years old, of course. Today, these times would probably reflect the recent emphases on climate change, the war on terror, the 2008 presidential horse race and the discovery that stories about missing or murdered beautiful white women make for excellent ratings. But would the content shift sufficiently to suggest viewers are truly receiving news? Or is it still, as Doc Slammy once said of CNN, “News Whizâ„¢”?

Local news isn’t an improvement, according to the PEJ study:

Yet the data also reveal that the medium is dominated by the ethos of “live, local and late-breaking” coverage, particularly of crime. Many of the stories are formulaic, reactive and, above all, short.

Here are some findings:
• Three-quarters of all stories are local.
• Roughly 70 percent of the stories are under one minute long.
• The most common topic is crime — by more than 2 to 1 over anything else.
• Four in ten stories are about fairly typical, everyday incidents.
• Six out of ten stories that involved controversy gave only or mostly one point of view.

Formulaic, reactive, and above all, short. That would make a remarkable epitaph for TV news, either network or local, were it not for the enormous profits each makes. It doesn’t take a genius to see that formulaic, reactive and short stories cost far less to report and produce than innovative, analytical and complete stories.

To partially blame falling ratings on the public’s short attention span — without acknowledging the network news programs’ complicity in either creating or fostering it — is a sad blemish on Mr. Brokaw’s otherwise uncommonly thoughtful Sunday appearance on CNN.

7 replies »

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  2. People have stopped watching the network news because they know it’s pure propaganda, advertising, and bull****. If you want honest coverage, there are better sources available on the Internet.

  3. While network news itself may not have shortened our attention spans, there is no question that the medium of television has. It may not have been intentional, but after fifty years we don’t know anything different. Stories take no more than 40 minutes to tell. News takes less than a minute. And advertising comes in 30 second packets.

    Really, the internet is no different. Rarely are blog entries anything that might be called in-depth. They blurb it out and then everyone piles on to add their blurbs. Newspapers have followed the herd of network news and the internet.

    There is in-depth coverage on the internet and in a select few print outlets, but one must look hard to find them. We decry the politics of sound-bites, but refuse to sit still for anything more.

    In the end, how we got these short attention spans matters less than lengthening them in any way that we can, because it is those short attention spans that make us such easy prey for propaganda, advertising, and bulls–t.

    Stick it to the man, leave your cell phone at home and turn it off long enough to read a book…maybe even disconnect your cable. And try not to spend all day watching 2.5 minute clips on YouTube.

  4. Jack,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    I’ve challenged my students to spend a single day without their cell phones. So far, no takers. Add to your list of causes the almost-desperate need for instant access — and its counterpart, instant availability.

    Colleges need to challenge their students to lengthen their attention spans. For example, we ought to have them writing more — and longer, more complex papers and essays.

    But here at my own university, students tell it’s possible to graduate (if the appropriate profs are picked) without writing a paper longer than three pages. That’s no way to develop an analytical mind.

    After they graduate, they just become additional members of the herd. And that’s sad and frustrating for me.

  5. I think Jack is right, but I’d like to add another angle.

    All television, publishing, and other media are subject to marketplace demands. Unfortunately, media outlets aren’t very good at measuring those demands.

    For instance, does anyone remember a TV show called “Designing Women”? It was a pretty good show, and there was a character who, occasionally, went off on a wild and funny rant. Doubtless, focus groups with watchers found that the audience loved those rants, so the writers were directed to do more of them. Eventually, every episode had at least one rant, and even two.

    And it wasn’t funny anymore. Not knowing when one of those rants would happen, and their relative novelty, was part of the attraction.

    As William Goldman says, when it comes to entertainment, “Nobody knows anything.” Attempts to duplicate past successes most often end in less-desirable results, or even downright failure. We get a single good movie about penguins that made good money and, all of a sudden, everyone has to have a penguin movie.

    I’m sure that TV news has been transformed for much the same reason. In the rush to improve ratings, focus groups have told the marketers that beauty is good, short is good, human interest is good, so we get Katie Couric instead of Eric Severide.

    What the marketers missed in all of this, of course, is that the reason to watch the news is to become informed, and when you don’t have that, the only ones left watching are the ones who tune in out of habit.