What's the Matter With TV News?

"Serious journalism" -- like international journalism and state house reporting -- doesn't make much money. And it never has.
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Reuters

Forty to 50 million people -- more than the combined populations of New York State and Texas -- are desperate for in-depth and original television journalism, said Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America. And that's why Al Jazeera America, the new channel he's launching, is going to be a hit in the United States, he claimed at the Aspen Ideas Festival Thursday afternoon.

The rest of the panel wasn't so confident. In fact, some were downright hostile to the idea that serious news has a big and untapped audience.

Lawrence O'Donnell, a primetime host on MSNBC, which has moved away from original reporting toward an op-ed-TV model, objected strongly to the idea that there was a 50-million-person audience for a serious news channel that didn't already exist.

"I think if you did a survey of the 300 million Americans, I think something like 50 million would tell you they want to read the complete works of William Shakespeare. They won't," he said, even if he personally placed the Bard's complete works on 50 million living room tables.

"[Serious television] is being offered to them every night on PBS," he added. "NewsHour is doing it every night. [Every discussion about serious television] always forgets that PBS exists. We're running the market test every single night."

Hari Sreenivasan, a PBS NewsHour correspondent, acknowledged that NewsHour only gets about one million viewers a night. But while he was self-deprecating about PBS' diminutive role in the television ecosystem, he said the network had the advantage of not having to respond to the brutal challenges of corralling massive audiences with snappy opinion-based infotainment. "For a noncommercial audience we have the luxury of time," he said.

TV news has a business problem, but it also has a distinct civic problem. The business problem is how to concentrate audiences in front of ad-supported news. The civic problem is how to inform the general American public, which has, admittedly, never been spectacularly informed, the panel agreed.

Great ratings don't come from eight-month special reports on Haiti, O'Donnell said. They come from the television equivalent of must-read newspaper columnists.  People tune in to see what their favorite personalities think. "When you get to 9pm in America ... what they're doing with their remote is 'I want to know what O'Reilly thinks about this. I want to know what Rachel thinks about this.'"

Building a profitable serious news channel suffers from the somewhat intractable fact that serious news has never been profitable, moderator James Fallows said. Instead, it's always attached itself to a "host body," like the Travel Section of the Los Angeles Times, or the car and real estate sections of other big papers. Perhaps the problem with TV news isn't that the networks aren't giving audiences what they want. It's that TV news is giving audiences exactly what they want, and some people don't like the outcome. The most profitable networks aren't "serious," and the most "serious" networks aren't profitable.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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