Lentis/From Cronkite to Stewart: TV News during and after Network Hegemony


Over the past half century, television in the U.S. has emerged as a means of delivering news programming. Rather than playing the static role of other household appliances, television and its programming have been dynamic, with changes motivated by both technological and societal forces. This article examines the social interface of television news as it has developed from inception to the present through three distinct phases delineated as the network era, the multi-channel transition, and the post-network era. With increasing avenues of communication provided by technology, the question of whether viewers are adequately informed is of great importance to a democracy, where the content and delivery of news can have far reaching impact on national policy and perception of events.

Early YearsEdit

How It BeganEdit

RCA 630TS Television. A 1946 advertisement [1] additionally highlights major selling points of convenience and "not missing out."

A number of historical events and technological innovations were major cornerstones for the Network Era. In 1946, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) introduced the first affordable home televisions (TVs) to the U.S. market, the RCA 630TS. At a price of $375, hundreds of thousands were sold within just three years. Integration of a home TV set into the average American household enabled the mass viewership later characteristic of the Era.[2][3][4] Technologies such as the coaxial cable link connecting the East and West coasts (1951), the videotape recorder (1956), and reversal film (1958) enabled faster, more synchronous broadcasts of news coast-to-coast. Standardization of color TVs (early 1950s) and the shift to color reversal newsfilm (1960) additionally provided heightened realism for the news.[5][6]

Half a decade after the spread of home televisions, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lifted their freeze on channel allocations. The long-awaited distribution of channels in 1952 largely favored three networks with perhaps coincidental connections in high places: CBS, NBC, and ABC. The three networks, termed the "Big Three," had already been slowly rising to prominence. Development of these strongholds in channel control, and increased autonomy of control over their schedules with the shift from single to multiple sponsorship at the end of the 1950s, primed CBS, NBC, and ABC to hegemonize the TV news industry.[7] 1963 arguably marks the beginning of the Network Era, as each of the three networks began broadcasting half-hour news during prime time TV. That same year, the real-time, 24-hour TV broadcasts following President John F. Kennedy's assassination both drew the nation together in its mourning and threw network news into the limelight.[5][7][6]

The Network EraEdit

Fordist principles that transformed early car manufacturing similarly shaped the beginnings of TV network news. Mass production, mass marketing, and mass consumption were initially economically necessary due to the high costs involved in early news production. Mass production of a fewer number of programs that appealed to as many viewers as possible was more cost-effective, and enabled higher quality programs to outcompete those going solo (i.e., independent producers). The television landscape of the time was thus one of universally available, uniform programming, with few differences between channels. Networks were indeed broadcasting in the most literal sense of the word: although due to numbers the primary targeted viewership was still mainly the white middle class, the less distinctive and controversial the program, the more successful it was.[7] In the words of the 1960s NBC Strategy Vice President Paul Klein, what worked was "programming that is [was] least objectionable."[7] In this era, the responsibility of choice for program viewing was on the shoulders of the distributors, not the viewers.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, high-profile events such as Watergate and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. continued to rock the nation, and served to underscore the importance of network TV news' roles in dissemination of nationally relevant information.[5][6] Viewers had little to no control over what they watched and when they watched it, and therefore relied on the decisions of the news networks and their newsmen.[7] Walter Cronkite of CBS may have been one of the first prominent TV newsmen to dare to venture an opinion - specifically, in speaking contrary to government optimism for the Vietnam War. Thereafter, a journalistic responsibility to seek the truth, even in the face of powerful opponents, would evolve for the news distributors.[8][9] Technologies were developed in the 1980s that increasingly enabled greater viewer control and choice. These developments simultaneously initiated the end of the Network Era, and shifted some of the burden of truth-seeking in news onto the shoulders of the public.[7][6]

The Multi-Channel TransitionEdit

The Increasing Prevalence of CableEdit

A new technology, cable, used satellite communication to increase viewer choice in the 1970s. Although the Telstar 1 demonstrated the potential of communication satellites in 1962,[10] television networks did not use such satellites for live national broadcasts until 1975 when HBO aired the "Thrilla from Manilla" boxing match throughout the U.S. in real-time.[11] Other networks followed suit by including live correspondence with foreign reporters in news programs (e.g., America Held Hostage).[12] The invention of the fiber-optic cable in 1970 also improved access to cable television by allowing for 65,000 times more information transfer than copper-wires did. [13] The increased accessibility of cable television increased viewers' choice by allowing them to watch shows on channels other than the Big Three.

In November of 1979, public interest in the Iran Hostage Crisis exposed the need for increased air time devoted to news. Accordingly, ABC created America Held Hostage - The Iran Crisis, a new type of news magazine. Because it was filmed daily and transmitted via communications satellites, America Held Hostage was able to document daily developments with participant interviews and live on-site reports, unlike its contemporaries (e.g., 60 Minutes) which were filmed once a week.[12] This innovative style of news broadcasting was very popular, allowing America Held Hostage to expand its scope after the crisis and become Nightline, a news magazine that is still running today.[12] Other investors also recognized the potential in increased news coverage. Therefore, seven months after the creation of the show Ted Turner founded CNN, the first 24-hour cable news network.[14]

The Rise of Viewer ChoiceEdit

As TV programming choices proliferated, new technologies gave more control over these choices to viewers. In 1976, Sony introduced the first Videocassette Recorder, allowing viewers to timeshift television programs.[15] This greatly reduced the communal aspect of US television viewing while also allowing viewers to watch shows programmed at the same time. Infrared based remotes, pioneered by Viewstar, Inc. in 1980, were a great improvement over older models, allowing them to sell over a million units by 1986. [16] The popularity of remote controls represents the increased acceptance of personal choice in television viewing caused by the growth of cable. Furthermore, remotes encouraged viewers to channel surf.[17]

Increased choice meant greater possibility for channel differentiation, and more companies began founding more specialized networks. However, this differentiation was hindered by the Fairness Doctrine that required news programs to "to provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such [controversial] issues."[18] Broadcast companies, beginning with Meredith Corporation in 1985, therefore fought against the Doctrine, arguing that it did not protect the public interest and was unconstitutional. By 1987, these broadcast companies had convinced the FCC to vote on the doctrine's future, and in August, the FCC voted unanimously to revoke the doctrine. [18] Without the Fairness Doctrine governing news coverage, cable networks were able to specialize further, appealing to specific political contingents with more opinionated anchors.

Additional news channels could be accessed in the home, increasing the diversity of content available to viewers. Such content included specialized networks such as ESPNews (1996) and The Weather Channel (1982). More traditional news networks were also created to compete with CNN in the 24-hour-news business, including MSNBC (1996) and Fox News Channel (1996). The channels deviated from the Network Era model of “programming which is least objectionable”: while MSNBC recognizes a progressive stance, Fox News officially maintains neutrality amidst substantial controversy. The intentional viewer preference segmentation successfully drew viewers away from the Big Three Networks, reflecting the beginnings of audience polarization. Between 1980 and 2005, when the average number of channels available increased by 800%, the Big Three’s primetime viewership dropped from 90% of U.S. TV viewers to just 32%. Network news has seen a similar decline. In 2005, the cable news networks’ broadcast shares had risen to half of the Big Three’s total broadcast share.[19]

Confirmation Bias After Network HegemonyEdit

One important factor enabling cable news to successfully pull viewership from the ‘Big Three’ was confirmation bias. This psychological phenomenon identifies the propensity of individuals to favor information that supports their beliefs. By identifying and appealing to demographic subpopulations, news channels such as ESPNews, MSNBC, and Fox effected emigration from the previously dominant networks. A notable outcome of confirmation bias in news programming was that despite greater availability of diverse perspectives, viewers did not expose themselves to this broader range of viewpoints. Rather, as more cable channels were created (shooting from 55 in 2001 to 100 in 2003) viewership became more fragmented and polarized, pulled by content specifically tailored to smaller groups.[20] Confirmation bias thus leads to an interesting paradox of increased diversity of news programming leading to more narrowly informed viewers.

The Post-Network Era and Lessons for TodayEdit

Widespread adoption of personal computers allows consumers greater power than ever before over how and when programs are viewed. This control exacerbates audience fragmentation and polarization by enabling fulfillment of confirmation bias. An example of audience segmentation can be found in politics, where specialized cable news channels has shifted coverage towards partisan communication [21]. The segmentation is also made evident beyond the content delivered by the news channels themselves, as advertisers aware of market segmentation aim targeted commercials such as political advertisements at these groups.

While ironically a production made possible by cable and appeal to narrower demographics, Jon Stewart (of the satirical news program “The Daily Show”) frequently pokes fun at the segmentation strategy employed by cable news channels. His commentary has also touched on the notion that partisan viewership can lead to misinformed viewers, and that despite being a “fake” news channel consumers of his show rank comparably to subscribers of more conventional news programming [22] [23]. Nevertheless, he maintains that as entertainment and satire, his show does not have journalistic responsibility – a position that stands in stark contrast to trusted newsman such as Cronkite of the network era, and which would not be possible without the new distribution avenues made possible by cable television.

One insight provided by studying the interface of news programming and society, is that as viewer power over news content increases, programming that exploits confirmation bias for viewership will result in increasingly fractured and polarized audiences. As Cronkite and other programs from the Network-era illustrate, one counterweight to this progression can be found with journalists who maintain a high level of integrity and seek to provide balanced and fair coverage to a wide range of issues. As television news moves into the present, we also find that viewers must take on a greater responsibility in content choice if they seek to become informed, by going beyond sources they find least objectionable and exposing themselves to the greater diversity of programming delivered by new technologies.


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