TV started in the US in the 1930’s and it’s been on a roll ever since. Personally, I’d argue that some aspects have gotten better and better (Sons of Anarchy, anyone?) others have stayed the same (I would argue that Two and a Half Men shows no growth from the uberformulaic 80s – seriously, the only thing missing is “What you talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”). Yes there’s 3D TV now – though most of us don’t have that yet . . . but the stations themselves have upgraded to color and HD over the years. Technology aside, the medium has grown . . .
Still there’s one aspect of TV that has grown by leaps and bounds, but maybe not in a very good way. It seems to be a uniquely American thing, too: The advent of news as entertainment.
The nightly news has been around since TV started. So who’s to blame for this change? Is it the people’s fault for buying in? Yes! It is. But it’s also the news stations’ fault for doing it, for looking for that buy in. If I hear “Could your refrigerator be killing you?” one more time, I’m gonna scream. Especially when this is consistently followed by a news article that takes about five minutes to say “No, though there are very small amounts of mercury and other harmful chemicals in your fridge, they are safely tucked into the back of the unit and nowhere near your food. You would have to disassemble the appliance and lick every element to get an exposure to even a trace amount.” I have learned to ignore these sensationalist tactics . . . oh, and I got TiVo, so I just gratefully fast forward past any talking heads.
Originally, news was considered journalism. People wanted to be informed, and if the good Americans sitting down after dinner felt the delivery was biased, they found another station. As news became more ratings driven, viewers were driven other places – such as the cable news channels. But with the tickers going by and the need to keep up their own ratings we now have stations with 24/7 coverage of . . . whatever the hell they can put together. Do you remember the news anchor who crawled into a box and pretended to be shot at a la Sadam Hussein?
When the results of the 2008 Presidential election came in, I was at a friend’s house for an Election Results Party. After flipping through channel after channel we finally settled in one spot. A spot you won’t believe. We got our election coverage from (brace yourselves!) the BBC. (If you weren’t sure, then yes, that first B is for British.) Though every American station was also broadcasting the returns, they had all the finesse and decorum of teenage girls watching the David Archuleta/David Cook results come in for American Idol. The BBC was the only station with any dignity left!
When did it all go awry? But that may be just the problem. It didn’t all go awry . . . it just slowly changed into what it is. Though that makes it hard to lay blame at anyone’s feet in particular, the results speak for themselves.
It’s true that the Daily Show is the number one source for news in the coveted 18-34 demographic. And why not? It’s funny, relevant, and you can certainly sort the wheat from the chaff. Big difference here is that all the crud is enjoyable. To go one better . . . when the Twin Towers fell, do you remember who had the best commentary? Yeah, it was Jon Stewart. Though the vast majority of the show’s many awards are for humor, they also have two very serious Peabodys. (Hysterically, the show seems to see that as an embarrassment.) Does your regular news station have Peabodys? Probably not.
I defected from the news (and went right over to the Daily Show like the rest of my demographic) when I was nineteen. Unlike most, though, my move wasn’t a slow drift or a moment when I realized that I’d been watching Comedy Central more than NBC, ABC or whatever. My defection was conscious and planned.
I was living in Florida at the time, a college student who could barely afford cable. And, wanting to stay educated-sounding and adult-feeling, I watched the news religiously. Here’s the trigger that made me leave.
First – the news told us to stay off the beaches. There had been a shark attack and a local teenage girl had been bitten. Holy horsefeathers, Batman! I was at the beach a lot. I watched the story, enraptured . . . until I heard the story. It seems the family had taken their boat out for the day. Wanting to see sharks, they had chummed the water. When no sharks appeared, they soothed their disappointment by going for a swim. This is what Darwin was talking about, people. They were lucky the shark only bit their daughter and spit her back out.
Still, I didn’t stop watching the news. I just adjusted. Clearly the news was overly sensationalistic, as long as I took it with a shaker’s worth of grains of salt, I was good. Then I saw the second story that made me quit the news for good.
The thing was, it wasn’t even a story. It was just the ‘interesting photo of the day’ that they posted with the closing credits. It started innocuously enough: “Here’s a shot that we got from one of our news choppers today while it flew over the beach.” The ‘interesting shot’ was of people enjoying the waves. A lot of people. A shadow was clearly distinguishable swimming in and out of the swimmers, though none of them appeared to notice as they jumped up and down with the swells. The newscaster’s voice went on, “We asked a local biologist and he confirmed that it appears to be a Great White Shark. Our measurements place it at about eighteen feet. Have a good evening, we’ll see you tomorrow at seven.”
Oh no, you won’t.
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