Friday, November 21, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics and Ratings

I’ve been home ill the last few days and have too much time to think about the current financial crisis and my business as our little drama plays out. Not if the television networks will fail but rather the financial crisis as drama, how it’s presented.

Suppose your boss said to you if you want to keep your job you need to give up your pension and healthcare. What would your reaction be? You can choose to sustain the future or the present, not both. Presented with this Hobson’s choice, mine would be fear. And fear makes for good television.

What if this happens to a neighbor or close friend and confidant? You would be witness to and identify with a basic, existential conflict that you hope never happens to you. Put it on a stage and it’s called drama. Put it on television and it’s called news. You become a witness to an accident in HD.

Over the weekend a reporter corrected an anchor who had repeated the “fact” that the Saudi tanker captured by the Somali pirates was “three times longer than an the largest air craft carrier.” Someone had done some checking and found they were close to the same size. It sounded great, just amazing, but it only bore some semblance to reality. I have not heard this reference since.

“Legacy costs” are this week’s fact. We’re told over and over the damned unions are ruining the American economy with their greedy demands for creature comforts. “$2000 of the price of every Detroit car goes to legacy costs.” “The American economy will collapse if the automakers are allowed to fail.”

Like the story about the size of the tanker, these bromides are passed along with little or no examination by anchors and reporters. They ignore the multinational scope of GM and Ford or the bias of the speakers. One interviewee on CNBC (GE) went unchallenged when he said that this emergency will not pass until a chainsaw is taken to these union contracts (his metaphor, not mine).

I guess you need to be in a television studio or control room to understand just how mechanical the interview process is. A producer is whispering in the earpiece of the anchor who is watching a prompter and trying to ask the questions as a floor manager is pointing to cameras, the director is calling shots and rolling tape, and everybody is listening to the content with a third ear, as it were, for a sound bite they will use later. Which makes the accusation of a bias on network television news so laughable. They are putting on a show, filling hours with talk and there’s little or no time to filter or slant except towards the numbers of eyeballs. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Meltdown or Britney or Iraq or Anna Nicole, the song is sung over and over with only slightly different lyrics. Except for sweeps week when lurid sex is thrown in.

Here’s an interesting article about the Secrets of Talk Radio on how the process works in talk radio land. The medium is different but the end result is the same. Eyeballs, ears and asses in seats.

Television news is entertainment to fill up the space between commercials. And the more you watch, the less you know.

No comments: