by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright December 2005
While I was training in Bangkok, Thailand, I spent a month in a nice hotel room. It was nice, but it had no Internet, so once in a while I turned on the TV. The TV showed BBC News, some local Thai channels, a Japanese channel, and a couple Indian channels. I spent less than a quarter of my TV watching time on BBC News. Even though I was not getting a newspaper, and I was cut off from cheap and easy Internet access, and I love keeping up on news, and it was the only channel broadcasting in English, I did not spend much time watching BBC News.
Because the information was coming to me at such a slooow rate! I think I was absorbing news at about one fifth the rate I would when I was scanning Google News or reading the Wall Street Journal. The information was coming at a slow rate because the video being shown was worthless at informing me. Consider this segment of news:
So, what did I pick up out of three minutes of newscast? That the G-7 had a meeting in Busan, Korea, and some platitudes about the issues being discussed. The TV broadcast gave me half the information of a radio broadcast on the same subject because it took two establishing shots to get me in and two departing shots to get me out, and a radio announcer would not have needed those.
The video part of a TV news feed can typically be thrown out entirely, and no news will be lost. If the news is about international trade, the video will be stock shots of cargo ships loading -- no news there. If the news is about farms, there will be stock shots of fields being cultivated, and so on.
In sum, the video feed of the typical US news broadcast is totally wasted as an information-moving tool. Sadly, it's not just the US. Globalization has affected news reporting the world over, and I've seen this same reporting format in Thailand, Korea, and Japan, as well as the US.
If a news program is about news, then it needs to pass on new information. If this is news, the speakers should be talking about new things, and the video should be showing information about new things. In fact, the video should be the workhorse of moving information because the video bandwidth is so much bigger than the audio bandwidth.
In terms of using bandwidth properly, the best examples of using video properly on contemporary TV are weather and sports. The weather map shows useful new information while the speaker talks. In terms of information passing, sports video is even better because it is showing highlights -- the raw data has been condensed.
So, what about other parts of a news show? How could video be used better? Business feed could be improved by using charts and graphs as the foreground rather than an announcer‘s face. And the charts could be animated, so the values being shown are moving. There could be color coding for things such as percentage change of price. Derivative values, such as a stock's moving average, beta , and ROI , could be displayed. There are huge numbers of charts and graphs about business activities that could be updated and would be fun to see. Some of the government publications, such as the Economic Report of the President, could be graphed and displayed. The Economic Report itself is a huge collection of data, so it could be running continuously for hours as announcers talk. The charts need to be moved to the front of the screen, the announcers need to get out of the picture, and these charts need to become dynamic to show trends, just as weather maps are.
In political news, it’s nice to see a face. In addition, there are various polls. Power Point-style displays of “talking points” could make the presentation politician-friendly.
Why is the current "informationless video" format popular the world over? I suspect there are two root causes behind its popularity.
The first cause is that network news isn't news at all, it's entertainment. Think about it: Who really wants to get actionable news around dinner time and again just before they go to bed? (“Actionable” meaning news that is important enough to take action on.)
The second cause is that the news team is most profitable to the broadcast companies when it acts like a collection of respectable friends or relatives to the viewer. The team is not in the typical person's home to give serious news (actionable news); it's there to provide a pleasant visit and gossip. This is why the news personalities are so important and why they can spend so much time on the screen without having viewers complain that there's no news in the news broadcast.
If the above analysis is correct, that news is really entertainment, the next question is: Why isn't there a market for real news on TV? Why is it that the real news market is serviced so much better by newspapers, magazines, and the Internet, and that there is no real news channel on TV, not even on some cable channel? The closest thing we have to a real news channel on TV is C-Span, which shows Congress in session, and that is certainly excitement-challenged. Another way of saying the same thing is: Why aren't viewers willing to pay for a real news channel?
How should actionable news be displayed on video? There is no single right answer, but here are some ideas that would start us in the right direction. First let’s define actionable viewing by giving some examples:
In the same vein, what you see when you are walking alone on the beach, thinking about life, the universe, and everything, is not terribly actionable, but walking on that same beach hand-in-hand with someone you'd really like to have become a significant other is highly actionable because you are keenly observing how that potential significant other is responding to you.
So, the first rule of actionable video is that it should be used in times and places were action can be taken. This rules out what a couch-potato is watching on the 10 PM news; that should remain entertainment. Actionable video is going to take place most often while looking at a computer screen, where a mouse, keyboard, or phone are readily available to take some action with. This may be why cable channels show no actionable video, either. Without some action-taking device ready at hand, there's no serious demand for actionable video.
And this may be the ultimate answer to why TV news is so gossipful and informationless. It's designed to entertain, not take any action on.
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