Writing in American journalism’s gilded age, Charles Dudley Warner offered this assessment of the worth of a newspaper:
Not all newspapers which make money are good, for some succeed by catering to the lowest tastes of respectable people, and to the prejudice, ignorance, and passion of the lowest class; but, as a rule, the successful journal pecuniarily is the best journal.
The reasons for this are on the surface. The impecunious newspaper cannot give its readers promptly the news, nor able discussion of the news, and, still worse, it cannot be independent.
This simple Darwinian rule applies equally to television news. The cheapest is usually the worst. I should know, I’ve played my part in severing newsgathering flesh from budgetary bone. There is one key difference, though between Warner’s newspaper world and the world of TV news. Regulation. For everyone that isn’t the BBC, that means Ofcom.
News was an imposition on broadcasters. It was the price they paid to extort large sums of cash from advertisers on airwaves that were in scarce supply.
Now as everyone in television knows, the airwaves are about to stop waving. TV will arrive via wifi, satellite or fibre-optic cable. Audiences are fragmenting, and advertisers are no longer quite so willing to hand over the cash. In such a cold hard world, will news still find a primetime place on the major channels?
A BBC–commissioned report claims to provide three crumbs of comfort.
- The opportunity cost of news is going down. That’s the cost of news factored against the cost of other programming you could run in its place. News is high on fixed costs. The more you run, the cheaper it gets. But that argument relies on current volume quotas staying in place. If broadcasters had to run a lot less, you guessed…so it’s not a positive reason for broadcasters to run news.
- The second reason is related to the attractiveness of news to upmarket viewers. This is why carmakers chose the break in News At Ten to advertise their wares. But their very isolation from the rest of the channel’s wares was why BBC Trustee David Liddiment dumped the programme for a chance to advertise to a bigger aggregate audience.
- News is important for a channel brand say audiences. Well, some audiences. Sky One hasn’t felt the need to put a news show into its mix. And five cut its primetime half-hour to fifteen minutes in 2005. So the report might be right, but executives aren’t voting with their schedules. And audiences like telling pollsters how much they value the news, but then seem to like watching something else.
It’s all well-meaning stuff, but it’s not going to last long in a real negotiation.
If news is to have a future on ITV and five, what can Ofcom do to force or incentivize their managements to run it? On the regulator’s coercive or persuasive powers rests the future of television news beyond the BBC.
It will be a poorer future, whatever happens. The regulator has watched as long-term news contracts decline in value, or have more programming squeezed out of them. In its Future of News discussion paper, Ofcom reminds PSBs of the importance of high quality news provision. The industry awards garnered by broadcasters like Sky and ITN indicate that there are indeed moments of very high quality in their news provision.
But cuts mean threaten the consistency of quality. No organization but the BBC maintains permanent correspondents and newsgathering operations covering Britain’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reason for other’s absence is simple – money.
So what can we expect from appeals for cash or subsidies with which to run such services? To quote Charles Dudley Warner once more: “An editor who stands with hat in hand has the respect accorded to any other beggar.” Thank goodness news has a future besides television.