The Case Against Audience Research for TV News Departments

It is good to know that at least one important news executive believes that broadcast news is still a public service.  That’s what  Jeff Fager, CBS News Chairman and 60 Minutes Executive Producer, told Arizona State Walter Cronkite Journalism School students recently, and I was fortunate enough  to hear the lecture on C-span.

“We are approaching a story in a smart way, a focused way that helps people better understand what is happening in the world,” he told  them.  “It’s about telling a story and it’s about reporting, how good a reporter are you? How well can you dig things up? How well do you  find things out?”

He explained how retired 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt influenced him, saying  that what Hewitt believed goes against all the conventional wisdom you hear about in news today.  “We never did audience research. We still don’t believe in it. I don’t believe in it.” However, it drives many news decision-makers now.  It may tell you not to do a story because it’s not visual and the audience doesn’t care about it.  He said he knew serious journalists who  run news organizations who would not cover the war in Afghanistan because research told them it was a turn off.  He says they are wrong.  A hundred thousand Americans are risking their lives in a war zone.  What  he didn’t say, but what I do say is that such behavior is irresponsible for anyone who calls himself a member of the Fourth Estate.  News media have a civic responsibility in a democracy such as ours. 

The truly important point he made, in my view, because it is one I tried to make repeatedly when I was still in the business, is that you cover a story because you think it is important  and you make it interesting.  It is up to you, the reporter, to do that, to make it interesting. 

For those who don’t buy the no-audience-research news philosophy, you need to take a look at the most successful news program in the  history of television.  60 Minutes has been on the air for 45 years  and has been and still is phenomenally successful. It is a ratings champion, still  often in the top ten. It is a combination of hard-noised investigative reporting and some stories about celebrities.   Fager says he plans to cut back on the celebrity stories and make the program even more relevant. The stories are not selected because of audience  research, but because the people who manage 60 Minutes believe they are important, important enough to do well.

Fager says CBS News will continue to follow the tradition established by people like Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, and Walter Cronkite. It will continue to challenge authority. It will take risks.  It will report from war zones. These are  things many news decision-makers don’t do because they are dangerous, expensive, and risky, but CBS News will.

Now, if we can just get the rest of the broadcast news world to follow their lead.  When is the last time you saw a truly important local investigative report on a controversial subject?  For many  years, even though we did not have the resources of CBS News, we use to do some digging, some investigative reporting, a lot more reporting on what legislators in Atlanta and Montgomery were up to. We didn’t rule them out because they might not be good TV picture stories. We made them interesting, and used creativity to come up with illustrative pictures, and, yes, we got good ratings.    

Also, corporate management stayed out of the newsroom. Stories were not killed because they might offend some powerful person or organization.  At  least, that was my experience. Management tried to hire capable broadcast journalists and let them do their jobs. More than once I had to be defended by station management, and I have to say that when I was a news director, they always backed me solidly.  Once, when a powerful businessman called my then boss the late Jim Woodruff, Jr. , he said to Woodruff, “You can tell them not to run that story, Jim.” Woodruff told him, “Yes, you are right. I could do that. I could tell them not to run it, and it would not run. And then I would not be able to hire a decent reporter.” Ah, the good old days.     

 

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One Response to “The Case Against Audience Research for TV News Departments”

  1. Jim Cawthorne Says:

    Really good article Dick.

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