Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Musings on Ari Melber's Speech and the State of TV News

There was a point that Ari Melber made at the Organizing 2.0 Conference that really struck a chord with me, and has been churning over in my head for the last couple days. It was the point in his opening speech when he brought up slide 6 in this slideshow:

We all knew this was happening, but seeing the actual numbers, that is a powerful thing. And this graph is a bad thing. Make no mistake about it, it is bad for society to be so sheltered from any subject matter of real substance. And yet, it gets worse. We expect this type of treatment. We treat it as the norm, and, in effect, we accept it as an unavoidable reality.

So that should raise this question: why can we not expect substantive soundbites? The most common answer I have heard throughout my life is, the ratings. They are giving us what we want. Right? I mean, if substantive news brought in ratings, they would give it to us? Right?

I spoke on similar grounds in previous postings about the death of newspapers. We hear from traditional news experts that the death of newspapers brings with it the death of investigative journalism. To which, I always wondered why it is that we cannot possibly expect television journalists to do investigative reporting.

It is the ratings. That is what we always hear. But there was another moment in Ari Melber's speech which made me seriously question whether or not that claim is accurate.

It was when he popped up slide number 12:

There are two things we need to see here:
1) This graph represents statistics regarding a full speech, not a sound bite.
2) The media clearly failed to make the most of it.

Youtube experienced more viewers than all the networks combined. Let us, for an instant, treat Youtube as a main stream news network (we could easily fill a book detailing whether or not it actually is). But if we treat it as a network, then Youtube, frankly, kicked the competition's ass. I mean, whooped the ever living crap out of the competition. CNN, FOX, MSNBC missed out on a large swath of the population that was clearly interested in viewing this substantive, 37 minute soundbite.

What happened with the major networks' ratings? (we're back to excluding Youtube from this category) By their ratings, the speech was successful. However, when you include the Youtube ratings, the speech is no longer successful, it is powerful. So why-oh-why were the television networks (with their powerful control over a major distribution venue) wholly incapable of matching the ratings of Youtube on this speech? I would argue that either:
1) Television itself is not designed to provide its audience with substance, or...

2) The networks are simply failing to figure out how to successfully distribute substantive coverage.

(and I would argue that the latter is more likely).

Regardless, I think Ari's speech demonstrates that the internet is clearly lacking whatever trait it is that prevents the television networks from giving us more than seven second soundbites.

We should ask why the television networks have been unwilling or incapable of providing substantive coverage. We should ask in what world it is possible. We should ask what influence caused the average soundbite length to drop so drastically. We should ask what responsibility the networks have, and we should ask what responsibility we have. In what way have we failed to hold television networks responsible? We should ask these questions (especially those of us in the media). We should understand how this history of dramatically decreasing soundbite lengths came to be, should we hope to reverse the trend.

And I will end with yet another question. If it actually is an unavoidable truth that television networks cannot achieve ratings with substantive material, should we consider abandoning television networks all together?

I pose this question for one reason only. The charts that Ari showed demonstrate that people are indeed interested in substance, when substance is available to them. And his charts demonstrate that the internet (social networking sites in specific, and yes Youtube is a social networking site) is succeeding in distributing substance, or can be used successfully to distribute substance.

We know these things are happening. We know that the television news outlets are not providing us with substance on anywhere close to the same level that the internet is. We have a ways to go before we understand why entirely.
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