”You Don’t Understand Our Audience”: What I learned about network television at Dateline NBC

John Hockenberry, a former NBC journalist who now works at MIT, reflects on what he says is the increasing irrelevance of TV journalism. Some of my most promising “New Media Journalism” students are interested in a broadcast journalism career, taking on internships and entering graduate school, and they all know why I prefer to get my news from the internet.  So I read this article with great interest.

The specific anecdotes about what got aired and what got spiked, such as how the decision to air a particular news item depended on whether the item had anything to do with the plot of a TV drama that led into the news show — wow.

Networks are built on the assumption that audience size is what matters most. Content is secondary; it exists to attract passive viewers who will sit still for advertisements. For a while, that assumption served the industry well. But the TV news business has been blind to the revolution that made the viewer blink: the digital organization of communities that are anything but passive. Traditional market-driven media always attempt to treat devices, audiences, and content as bulk commodities, while users instead view all three as ways of creating and maintaining smaller-scale communities. As users acquire the means of producing and distributing content, the authority and profit potential of large traditional networks are directly challenged.

In the years since my departure from network television, I have acquired a certain detachment about how an institution so central to American culture could shift so quickly to the margins. Going from being a correspondent at Dateline–a rich source of material for The Daily Show–to working at the MIT Media Lab, where most students have no interest in or even knowledge of traditional networks, was a shock. It has given me some hard-won wisdom about the future of journalism, but it is still a mystery to me why television news remains so dissatisfying, so superficial, and so irrelevant. Disappointed veterans like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather blame the moral failure of ratings-obsessed executives, but it’s not that simple. I can say with confidence that Murrow would be outraged not so much by the networks’ greed (Murrow was one of the first news personalities to hire a talent agent) as by the missed opportunity to use technology to help create a nation of engaged citizens bent on preserving their freedom and their connections to the broader world.

I knew it was pretty much over for television news when I discovered in 2003 that the heads of NBC’s news division and entertainment division, the president of the network, and the chairman all owned TiVos, which enabled them to zap past the commercials that paid their salaries. “It’s such a great gadget. It changed my life,” one of them said at a corporate affair in the Saturday Night Live studio. It was neither the first nor the last time that a television executive mistook a fundamental technological change for a new gadget.