From Marketing Magazine.

[I was sitting with the editor of Marketing one evening some years back watching the news and, when one on the reporters did his usual sign-off, what can I say? The rant just started flowing … Mister Editor was in part amused and in part appalled, but nevertheless asked me to capture this particular rant, so here it is, albeit cleaned up somewhat. It has an obviously Irish flavour, in terms of the channels and personalities involved, but the lowest-common-denominator theme is universal and certainly applies to our discussion of cleanly getting information across to an audience.]

Rowan Manahan on how the media is guilty of stealing too many prized moments

In the 18th century, Thomas Fuller wrote that “The first breath is the beginning of death.” By that measure, we are all dying, one day at a time; and I don’t know about you, but I reckon TV news reporters like Charlie Bird, Ursula Halligan, Emma Hurd et al are hastening my demise. We’ve all suffered through their little sign-offs: “This is Charlie Bird, for RTE News, at government buildings.”

Charlie, really, who cares? You have just wasted valuable seconds of my life imparting that information. Here’s the thing: I don’t give a damn what your name is; the story is not in any way about you. Unless someone starts shooting cyanide-tipped arrows at you [now there’s an idea!], you are irrelevant to the news you report. Also, I can see the logo in the corner of the screen, so I think I can work out what station I am watching. And, believe it or not, I was listening to you and I can see where you’re standing. So just tell me what this piece of supposed ‘breaking’ news is and shut the hell up!

Actuaries tell us, among other useless factoids, that Americans eat 18 acres of pizza per day; that the average person will spend two and a half weeks of their life sitting at traffic lights and that men will spend almost 3,000 hours shaving in their lifetime. My question is, how much of my life are these talking heads stealing with their sign-offs? And where can I send the invoice?

“Oh come on!” I hear you say. “It’s just a harmless convention. Let them have their five minutes in the spotlight”

No. No. No. NO. NO! It’s not harmless. It’s an utter waste of time; and more to the point, it’s time that could be spent reporting on real news.

The other night, I was looking at an early evening news broadcast on a station that shall remain … TV3. Five of these yahoos!

  • One confidence-boosting baritone.
  • One achingly beautiful female co-anchor.
  • Another baritone for the sport.
  • A wacky weather guy with a plain-people-of-Ireland accent.
  • And a blousy entertainment ‘news’ person.

Now, subtract all the repartee, sign-offs, handovers, teasers and not-really-news elements from the half-hour broadcast and what have you got left? Not a whole heck of a lot. Certainly not enough to cover meaty stories with any kind of telling analysis, context or follow-up. I switched over to Sky and guess what? Remove the logos and you really couldn’t tell the difference. CBS and NBC later that night? Slicker graphics and truly scary-looking reporters – every hair mashed into place, frozen botox-rictus grins and heavy eNUNciation as they PUNCH every third WORD. But other than these minor cosmetic and branding details – all television news seems to have degenerated into this flickering nonsense.

What about the phone-in polls? I just love those! I showed some of these at a lecture recently and the audience started laughing. Not at the topics, although some of them were deeply dippy – no, they were laughing at the lack of a very simple, but important piece of data at the bottom of each slide. You will have seen this on numerous legitimate polls; it’ll say something like “n=1050,” referencing that there were 1,050 respondents. When Rupert Murdoch, or whoever, sticks one of those brightly-coloured bar charts up on screen without the little n, it means nothing. NOTHING!

“Well,” says the impossibly symmetrical female anchor with just a hint of a come-hither grin, “64% of you think that nun-beating should be legalised.” 64% of who exactly? Maybe some researcher stuck their head into the cafeteria five minutes before airtime and shouted, “Hands up anyone here who thinks that whacking nuns should be allowed by law?” But by mentioning the poll twice in the broadcast and giving it some funky graphics, the implication, of course, is that this is a relevant and widely-held belief.

[I just had a thought on this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we passed legislation requiring newsreaders to preface these time-wasters by saying, “And now, here’s a completely unscientific and ultimately pointless little chart based on the 27 sad people who texted in their opinion, followed by some footage of unattractive, semi-articulate, people giving you their opinions in this equally pointless and unscientific vox pop, followed by the unscientific and ultimately pointless emails we have received from another 27 sad bozos who were too cheap to even use text!” Now, hear me out … Why not do this? You’re not allowed to put misleading or statistically insignificant charts in advertising – why is it allowed on the news? The. NEWS!]

What is the standard response of news producers to criticism of their offering? “We merely give the public what it wants. We’ve tried high-brow and they just don’t tune in.” My reaction is to point to the one model that has been consistently profitable since the advent of the internet: Pornography. Thus I think we can all agree that ‘the people’ have spoken. If stations really intended giving the public what it wants, there would be a lot more silicone on the nine o’clock news. So it’s clear to me that the producers have drawn a line somewhere. It’s just that in a dozen little ways, they didn’t draw it in the right place.

When did news plummet to this lowest common denominator? Maybe it’s rose-tinted glasses, but while I don’t remember Don Cockburn [RTE newsreader] or Richard Baker [BBC newsreader] as being particularly erudite, they could at least string coherent sentences together.

TV news is easy. It is easy on the eye (very easy, with all the chiselled jawlines and doe-eyed supermodel types), easy on the ear and increasingly anaesthetic on the brain. Is there a solution to this banality and mediocrity? Probably not as long as the advertisers have the influence they do. So for now, when I am looking for bona fide analysis and context to the stories of the day, I am forced to rely on my broadsheet and more and more, on the internet.

“… a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”
(William Shakespeare)

Update: I watched Broadcast News over the weekend, and sat up to see the scene where Albert Brooks tells Holly Hunter his opinion on her boyfriend (the news anchor):
AARON I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy … is the Devil.

JANE (quickly) This isn’t friendship.

AARON What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing … he will just, bit by little bit, lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us [newspeople] really being salesmen.

Bit by little bit …