Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Mission: Control

New England Cable News unveils the world's first user-controlled newscast. A speculative look at how emerging technologies may change the face of TV news -- for better and worse.

By Dan Kennedy

DECEMBER 1, 1997:  You're tired, and you've got an early meeting tomorrow. But the city council was supposed to hold a hearing tonight on the proposed urban mall that you fear will destroy your neighborhood. So you force yourself to stay up and catch the 11 p.m. news.

First up is a murder in Dorchester. Police aren't releasing the victim's name, and there are no clues. But the trenchcoat-clad reporter looks pretty dapper as he sternly delivers a live update, the yellow crime-scene tape flapping gently in the breeze.

Next, a Louise Woodward sighting! In Marblehead! Followed by a tornado in Oklahoma. You don't know anyone in Oklahoma, but those smashed-up farmhouses sure look impressive. John Travolta at Fenway Park. An early look at the weather (actual forecast to come later in the program). And "coming up next": a real-life doctor who treats the same kind of rare childhood disease that was featured on tonight's made-for-TV movie!

You trudge off to bed, pissed. And hoping the Globe or the Herald will have something on the mall tomorrow.

Is there a more autocratic, less flexible news medium than television? In a word, no. But that's about to change.

Fifty years after television began transforming us into a nation of passive spectators, we're on the verge of being handed a new set of controls. In the future, TV news will be available whenever you want. You'll be able to pick the stories you want to see, complete with access to background materials and previous stories. Most important, you'll be able to skip what you don't want to see.

And if you have access to the Internet, you can get a sneak peek at what this new medium might look like right now. Two months ago, New England Cable News (NECN) unveiled what is apparently the world's first user-controlled newscast. Located on the World-Wide Web at http://www.necnews.com, the site includes video clips of virtually every story that's been broadcast on a given day. Click on a clip, and -- provided your browser has been juiced up with the appropriate free software -- you'll see and hear a small, herky-jerky, but perfectly adequate version of the same report that appeared on the air. Of course, the computer is far from an ideal news platform. But next-generation TVs could incorporate intelligent technology that will meld traditional television with the Web.

"People can do what they've talked about for years, which is pick what they want," says NECN executive editor Iris Adler. "It allows consumers finally to view the news in a selective and intelligent way."

This revolution -- call it news-on-demand -- promises to change the face of journalism as thoroughly as the rise of national and local TV newscasts did in the 1960s and '70s.

Currently, any news director interested in her job security would be loath to run, say, a two-minute piece on a legislative hearing, fearing that more-casual viewers would switch to the Family Channel to catch up with the lives and times of Moe, Larry, and Curly.

But freed from such constraints, news-on-demand services could conceivably break out of local news' crime-celebrity-weather-sports iron quadrangle and -- like newspapers -- seek out niche audiences with stories on a wide variety of subjects. Local TV news, which has been sliding for the better part of a decade into tabloid sensationalism and celebrity gossip, could be reborn as a serious news medium.

And just as technology will make it possible for TV news to emulate newspapers, so will that technology enable newspapers to look more like TV. In fact, the same technological advances that could revive TV news might also spell its doom. Imagine a time, one or two decades hence, when both newspapers and TV newscasts can be displayed on portable, high-resolution, limited-function computers the size of a magazine. It's not difficult to believe that more people would rather spend a half-hour with the electronic Boston Globe, supplemented with video and audio, than they would with whatever product its TV competitors are able to come up with. (Significantly, the Globe and NECN are already working together. Through a partnership agreement, Globe reporters and editors regularly appear on NECN's newscasts. In addition, NECN has transformed several of the Globe's projects, such as a special section on death and dying, into TV documentaries.)

Thus local television news, triumphant in its first confrontation with newspapers, could very well be a major casualty of the coming digital war.

In a very real sense, though, such predictions are irrelevant given that print, video, audio, and photos are all converging into the same digital stream of zeroes and ones. The true battle will not be between newspapers and TV stations; rather, it will take place among a generation of emerging news organizations that compete to strike the proper balance between providing reliable information and allowing individual users to customize that information to fit their own needs and preferences.

Says retired Boston Globe editor Jack Driscoll, now editor-in-residence at the MIT Media Lab: "All of media are going to have to learn each other's business."

Carefully coifed anchors promising murder and mayhem at 11 did not spring fully formed from the technological and cultural moment that gave birth to television 50 years ago. No, it took a lot of evolution -- or devolution, perhaps -- to create such "news" as the recent report on an obviously disturbed scientist who wants to perform human head transplants (WHDH, Channel 7), or on a limbless high-school football player (WFXT, Channel 25).

In the beginning, TV news was serious -- but seldom seen. Far more than radio, television was conceived primarily as an entertainment medium. At a time when it had not yet dawned on anyone that news could be repositioned as highly profitable entertainment, news was considered a boring intrusion.

Until the early 1960s, local TV stations broadcast news and public-affairs programs grudgingly, offering 10 to 15 minutes of headlines mainly to comply with the Federal Communications Commission's public-interest requirements. But as that tragically newsworthy decade unfolded, the national newscasts expanded, and the local stations soon followed -- especially as it began to dawn on station owners that they could make money from news.

Local TV news really began to take off in the early 1970s. In Boston, the three major stations, Channels 4, 5, and 7, offered an hour at 6 p.m., leading into national half-hour newscasts, and then a half-hour at 11 p.m. "It was the most lucrative kind of business you could get into," recalls Boston University professor Jim Thistle, who's done stints as news director at four Boston stations. "It was like having a license to print money in the basement. The profits were just enormous."

Though no one would ever have confused the quality of those local newscasts with that of the New York Times, or even Walter Cronkite's CBS Evening News, the mid-'70s through the late '80s now stands out as a golden era. WCVB-TV (Channel 5), purchased by a community group in the early '70s, put together what was widely considered the best local newscast in the country. WBZ-TV (Channel 4), then as now owned by Westinghouse, was reliable and serious. Nothing worked at Channel 7, which went through several owners and call letters, but at least it didn't define its mission as cheapening the public discourse, as it seems to today.

What brought this era to an end was competition from cable and VCRs, which tightened the money spigot, and the influx of out-of-town corporate owners, which put the pressure on to maximize profits. In Boston, local owners sold WHDH (Channel 7) to the Miami-based Sunbeam chain, which launched an all-out ratings war with flashy graphics, shorter stories, and a salacious emphasis on crime, celebrities, and the just-plain-weird. Long-time ratings leader Channel 5, which had been sold to the Hearst Corporation, copied 7's graphic style, although it has so far managed to avoid its rival's sensationalistic excesses.

Every station cut costs and dumbed down. At one time, all three of the city's newscasts regularly ran editorials on issues of local importance. Today, the city has five newscasts plus NECN, yet only Channel 5 continues to take its civic obligations seriously enough to broadcast editorials.

Though some sneer that this deterioration of quality is nothing more than a reflection of what the public wants, the truth is more complicated. In fact, the pursuit of ratings -- and, thus, advertising revenues -- has little to do with the news tastes of viewers.

Richard Parker, a senior fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, at Harvard's Kennedy School, offers the example of three hypothetical newscasts that each garners 33 percent of the audience. If one station suddenly decides to push for 35 percent, the fastest, cheapest way to do that is to go tabloid to attract the competition's most downscale viewers. In an effort to hold on to those viewers, the other stations then go downmarket as well, resulting in a vicious cycle of stupidity.

"That creates a problem for the 98 percent who are not being pursued," Parker says. "They've now got no place to go." Which may explain why, according to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, local TV news viewing had slipped from 72 percent in 1995 to 65 percent in 1996.

That's still higher than the audience for the three network newscasts, which dropped from 60 percent of the public in 1993 to 42 percent in 1996, as well as for daily newspaper readership, stuck for several years at about 50 percent. Nevertheless, it suggests growing dissatisfaction with increasingly cynical attempts to drive up ratings.

It suggests, too, that there may well be a ready-made audience for serious broadcast journalism. In a few places, most notably Austin, Texas, newscasts that have deliberately bucked the sensationalistic trend have done well in the ratings. In Boston, public radio station WBUR is near the top of the heap during morning and afternoon drive time, when it broadcasts National Public Radio's first-rate newscasts. Channel 5, which has done a better job than the other stations of maintaining its standards, remains number one, with Channel 7 a close second.

"If everyone else is offering the latest tabloid titillation," says Ellen Hume, executive director of PBS's Democracy Project and an outspoken critic of local newscasts, "then there's a market for a serious news audience."

It's the biggest ongoing story in television, and in media generally: the rise of niche services and the resulting fragmentation of a once-unified audience. Whereas nearly everyone used to watch whatever CBS, NBC, or ABC happened to be showing, today viewers can choose from a wide range of specialty cable networks. Or watch a video. Or turn off the TV entirely, and pursue any one of thousands of the exceedingly narrow but exquisitely deep special-interest sites available on the Web.

Audience fragmentation first came to TV news some 15 years ago, in the form of CNN. Once, millions watched as Walter Cronkite negotiated, live, with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Now, CNN makes some $300 million a year despite an average audience of just 300,000. And the fragmentation continues. CNN spawned Headline News. Competitors launched MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Court TV does nothing but legal news; CNBC, financial news by day and talk by night.

Locally, news junkies got their own niche five years ago, when New England Cable News was launched. Headed by Phil Balboni, who was Channel 5's news director during the glory years, NECN is a joint venture of the Hearst Corporation (which owns Channel 5) and MediaOne (formerly Continental Cablevision).

Despite skepticism that New England needed its own all-news station, NECN has been a qualified success. On the one hand, its programming has from the beginning evinced a distressingly conventional preoccupation with breaking news, sports, and the weather. On the other hand, as an all-news station NECN does have the time to offer more depth than its rivals. And the quality of its audience -- which, after all, has consciously decided to tune in a news channel -- allows NECN to take a more sober approach. Its ratings remain minuscule compared to those of channels 4, 5, and 7, but advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach NECN's presumably affluent, well-educated viewers -- so much so that Balboni predicts the operation will be "solidly in the black" in 1998.

With their emphasis on niche programming, it's no coincidence that both NECN and CNN are leaders in using the Web to provide news-on-demand. CNN's site (http://www.cnn.com) is one of the best news services on the Web. CNN, though, has taken a different approach from NECN's, weaving together text and video to create something distinct from its TV product. NECN, so far, is alone in using the Web as an alternative form of television.

For NECN, the Web works as a niche within a niche, taking viewers interested in a serious news presentation and offering them more depth and more ability to personalize the experience to fit their interests.

With the news divided into categories such as headlines, local news, national and world news, weather, sports, and the like, you can quickly get to where you want to go. You can even look up old stories in the archives. And you don't need outrageously expensive computer power: though the site works best with the kind of broadband cable-TV connection being touted by MediaOne, it's eminently usable with a recent-vintage PC or Mac and a 28.8 modem.

News for the masses it isn't, but neither is it restricted to an elite few.

Paul Klite watches a lot of TV news. A few years ago Klite retired from his medical practice to found Rocky Mountain Media Watch, a Denver-based organization that monitors local newscasts around the country. Rocky Mountain's best-known report -- Pavlov's TV Dogs, a study of 100 local newscasts in 58 cities, all of which were taped on a single night in 1995 -- found that things are just as bad as you thought. Maybe worse.

For instance, Rocky Mountain found that just 40 percent of a typical newscast was devoted to news. Of that slice, 30 percent was given over to crime, and another 12 percent to disaster and war. It's no wonder that heavy TV viewers report intense fear of violence, despite incontrovertible evidence that crime rates have been dropping rapidly for several years.

The noted media critic George Gerbner, founder of the Cultural Environment Movement, calls this television-created phenomenon the "mean-world syndrome." Klite calls it a deliberate attempt to jolt people into an emotional, unthinking state of "arousal" that's highly prized by advertisers.

So Klite isn't too worried about the possibility that news-on-demand and other niche services will erode the audience for local newscasts. After all, he says, look at the message those newscasts are giving them now: that the streets aren't safe and that apathy is the only logical response to politics. "A lot of people are fed up with local TV news. They just haven't had any place else to go," Klite says. "I applaud any attempt to come up with new information sources."

Yet local newscasts often perform the useful civic function of serving as the town common, where a community's concerns get aired. In its own crude way, TV brings us together and teaches us, however inadvertently, important lessons about the culture -- especially, it seems, through high-profile trials. Consider the O.J. Simpson trial, and what we learned about race, celebrity, and wealth. Or the Louise Woodward trial, and the difficult questions it raised about child care and the simmering tensions between social classes.

If the elite news audience is going to give up on traditional newscasts and switch to news-on-demand services such as NECN's, then television's democratizing role will be undermined. Social critic Steven Stark, author of Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today (Free Press, 1997), worries that the result will be newscasts even more sensationalistic than what's on now. "If computers and cable are skimming off the cream of the news audience," he says, "that leaves broadcast news with an increasingly downscale audience and even more pressure to go tabloid."

Stark's warning is echoed by Dan Rea, a veteran reporter for Channel 4, who wonders whether the traditional newscasts may lose "all the viewers of thought or intellect," and adds: "If there isn't a sufficient base of viewers for local news, then it could be gutted or even eliminated."

Then, too, technological advances could harm not just those left behind, but also those who come to rely on those advances. Walter Bender, director of MIT's Media Lab, predicts the time will come when you'll be able to adjust the newscast to reflect your own political bias: turn the knob to the right for the conservative spin, to the left for the liberal spin. Bender seems to think that's a good idea, but that's a dubious proposition. You don't have to be a blind devotee of the cult of objectivity to believe that properly executed news stories contain an inherent degree of fairness and balance that should not be subjected to ideological fiddling.

On a more mundane level, there's the simple matter of what may happen if today's profit-driven news values collide with tomorrow's technology. Long-time Channel 5 reporter David Ropeik warns that, just as live technology "robbed us of those few hours of thought" before airtime, news-on-demand will "create a greater competitive pressure to get it up on the Web immediately." Ropeik also worries about developments that make it increasingly easy for journalists to report, shoot video, and edit -- and, thus, increasingly easy for stations to eliminate jobs and require the people who are left to juggle multiple tasks. "It's going to happen," Ropeik says. "It's already happening in some markets. Content gets short shrift -- or could."

But if TV stations get too greedy, they're going to hear footsteps from a foe they thought they had vanquished long ago: newspapers. For just as technology will make it possible for TV to emulate print's advantages of constant availability and the ability to pick and choose, so will technology allow print to borrow from television.

Few have thought about this new paradigm more thoroughly than Kent State University professor Roger Fidler, author of Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media (Pine Forge, 1997). For several years, Fidler, a former Knight-Ridder executive, has been predicting that newspapers, magazines, and books will eventually be distributed electronically, on high-resolution, magazine-size digital tablets. Content would be loaded in via simple-to-use home docking stations. Users could subscribe to, say, the New York Times' front page and editorial pages, and to the Globe's and the Herald's local news.

Theoretically, these electronic newspapers could combine the best aspects of traditional newspapers and TV newscasts, supplementing print with video and audio clips -- as is already done, for instance, by the Web edition of the Times, at http://www.nytimes.com. E-papers would even pose a threat to radio, since you'd be able to set your tablet to read you the day's news out loud while you're driving your car.

Fidler's vision sounds like it's many years from reality, but he believes that economics are going to speed up the process: by 2010, he says, newspapers will find it cheaper to switch to electronic distribution rather than buy expensive new presses. Even if they have to give the digital tablets away.

For the moment, New England Cable News staffers would be happy if they could just work out the kinks. Using current technology, news-on-demand is a laborious process. Eric Cooper, one of the producers, says it takes two to two-and-a-half times as long to encode a piece of video for the Web as it does to broadcast. The longest clip he's put up so far consists of just 12 minutes. As better compression techniques become available, it will become possible to put up longer clips in shorter periods of time.

NECN officials won't say how many people are accessing the site on a regular basis. Iris Adler says it got some 500,000 hits the day that Judge Hiller Zobel reduced British au pair Louise Woodward's conviction and set her free. But she adds that that was obviously an aberration.

Despite the experimental nature of the project, NECN is clearly taking it seriously. A crew of producers updates the site continually from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Next month, the video software will be upgraded to provide for a bigger, sharper image. Like most Web publishers, Phil Balboni and company have no idea how they're going to make money. Their hope is that, someday, a combination of advertising and fees will make news-on-demand as commercially viable as a traditional newscast.

"This, to me, is inevitably the way people will want to move," says Balboni in an interview at NECN's Newton headquarters. "We think it's very important to be on the leading edge."

And indeed, despite the technological and cultural pitfalls that lie ahead, despite the questions about economics and audience fragmentation, the promise of televised news-on-demand is simply too great to be denied.

For 50 years, your TV set told you what was news. As often as not, it was wrong. Now it's your turn.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.

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