"You don't understand our audience": What I learned about network TV at Dateline NBC

A reprint of a good article that has since disappeared behind the Technology Review subscription firewall. Probably too dated to assign to my news writing students this year, so I guess I’ll just refer to it in lecture.

The informational edge was perilous, it was unpredictable, and it
required the news audience to be willing to learn something it did not
already know. Stories from the edge were not typically reassuring about
the future. In this sense they were like actual news, unpredictable
flashes from the unknown. On the other hand, the coveted emotional
center was reliable, it was predictable, and its story lines could be
duplicated over and over. It reassured the audience by telling it what
it already knew rather than challenging it to learn. This explains why
TV news voices all use similar cadences, why all anchors seem to sound
alike, why reporters in the field all use the identical tone of urgency
no matter whether the story is about the devastating aftermath of an
earthquake or someone’s lost kitty.

It also explains why TV news seems so archaic next to the
advertising and entertainment content on the same networks. Among the
greatest frustrations of working in TV news over the past decade was to
see that while advertisers and entertainment producers were permitted
to do wildly risky things in pursuit of audiences, news producers
rarely ventured out of a safety zone of crime, celebrity, and
character-driven tragedy yarns. —John Hockenberry