Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, November 28, 2021

With credibility scandals, the retirement of long-tenured anchors, and more competition than ever, the future of network news operations seems shaky.

Unless you see the forest for the trees, and notice that network news still commands viewership numbers that dwarf the most buzzworthy cable programs and online sources:

Most evenings, nearly 30 million people watch one of the three [network] programs. Ratings have been sinking steadily, but that’s the case for most shows in a fragmented television world; evening news ratings have dropped at a rate 4 percent slower than prime-time broadcast fare over the past decade, according to Nielsen Media Research.

For all the attention they get, the three cable news networks — Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC — don’t even get 4 million viewers combined in an average prime time.

Not that it’ll be business as usual going forward:

All of the evening newscasts seemed to go through some sort of identity crisis in the pre-Sept. 11, 2001 world, wondering if a mostly no-nonsense look at the day’s top stories made sense anymore.

Those days are gone, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant whose firm, ADT Research, studies the content of each newscast.

“They’re very much like they were in the late 1980s, when they were still the flagship newscasts of the networks,” he said. “They’re serious newscasts dealing with domestic policy, politics and international news, with very little human interest, little water-cooler material. It’s a hard newscast.”

They all run a lot of health coverage, since most of their viewers are over 50, he said.

All had stories on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s ethics problems this month. That’s a story the network morning shows would barely touch, Tyndall said, evidence that the content of morning and evening newscasts are becoming more distinct.

To a large degree, the serious turn is a function of the times.

“For a while there, to say that something was a foreign news story was to be using a term that was offensive in some newsrooms,” said “Nightly News” executive producer Steve Capus. “I think what Sept. 11 said was that we shouldn’t be afraid to cover the world and America was hungry for a trusted service to look at what’s going on around the world.”

News executives say the evening programs have tried to be more explanatory, recognizing that many viewers have already had a chance to see headlines elsewhere.

Yet the presence of cable news is deceptive. Following industry leader Fox News, these networks have become more talk, less straight news over the last few years.

The notion that people can work late, skip the broadcast evening news and catch up later on cable isn’t necessarily true. Try to find a serious newscast on these networks in prime time, at least before Aaron Brown on CNN at 10 p.m. Eastern time, and you’ll be out of luck.

Even CNN Headline News — a dependable network that rotates newscasts every half-hour — plans to experiment with prime-time talk shows in the next year.

The services that were supposed to make the evening news obsolete are instead giving the broadcasters an opening.

Outside of the newsmagazines, the nightly news programs have also become one of the last refuges for packaged reports, where a correspondent gathers material throughout the day for a prepared story. Cable and local newscasts are instead dominated by reporters who stand in front of a camera on location and talk about what they know, a format that frequently sacrifices depth for a sense of immediacy.

How important is that personality-driven component in newscasts? Pundits and even some viewers claim the institution of the news overrides who delivers it, and personally I’m of a like mind on that. I don’t watch any television news, local or national, outside of one or two special news cycles per year. I feel I get more direct information from print and online sources.

Yet I know I’m in a minority. Most people prefer broadcast (and primarily television over radio) as their information channel, simply before it’s a more passive way of getting the news pushed to them. And in that context, the identity of the talking head that’s doing the talking takes on significance, simply by virtue of that role. Whether that’s merited or not is irrelevent: People perceive it that way, and that shapes public opinion and consent.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 11:50pm
Category: TV
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Are you ready for ringbacks? Verizon Wireless is offering them in select areas, and will be rolling out availability throughout 2005.

So what are they, exactly?

The ring-back tone is what callers hear between the time they finish entering the digits and the time the call is answered. In the United States, these tones are rarely customized, so they usually sound the same no matter whom is being called…

Subscribers can choose from a catalog of more than 2,200 songs in 13 genres. The music is supplied by Warner Music Group and Sony BMG Music Entertainment.

Based on their modest success among wireless subscribers overseas, providers are looking for ringbacks to generate a healthy business in the States.

Not everyone agrees:

“Ringback tones are, essentially, a fashion statement. Their only real purpose is to show off to others who are calling you. The problem, then, is that fashion statements go out of fashion - sometimes very quickly,” [technology consultant Michele Mackenzie] said.

My prediction: U.S. phone companies will do a ham-handed job of differentiating between ringtones and ringbacks, leading to consumer confusion and rejection. Ringtone sales will continue to grow, but ringbacks will remain obscure and seldom-bought.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 11:15pm
Category: Business, Tech
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A whole blog composed of nothing but pet betta photos?

Not the way I’d go. But okay.

That’s a fine-looking little fish. There’s no way he’s cooler than my blue betta, though.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 07:12pm
Category: Bloggin'
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KO!
Remember that Cameron Diaz-Justin Timberlake spat with an overly-aggressive paparazzi?

Nah, me neither. Who has time to keep up with all those celebrity derring-dos?

But even without the full real-world context, Liquid Generation’s “Paparazzi Punch-Out” is a fun little diversion, and a great send-up of the 20-year-old Nintendo game.

While Justin is predictably easy to knock around, Cameron turns out to be one tough cookie in the ring. Must be a result of all that Charlie’s Angels training.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 06:59pm
Category: Celebrity, Comedy, Internet, Videogames
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The recent suicide of Iris Chang, author of “The Rape of Nanking”, prompted some musings about the personal risk of immersing oneself in historical horror stories.

Specifically, the psychological impact of becoming consumed by individual accounts among large-scale holocausts can be huge:

[Historian Raul] Hilberg said that during his work on the Holocaust starting in 1948 a few small episodes affected him especially strongly. For example, he said he became sickened after researching the fate of a Jew who sued the Nazis for the right to purchase coffee.

“I was nauseated because obviously this Jew was picked up and sent to Auschwitz or wherever they sent him and died,” he said. “Why did this particular incident affect me when I could calmly read about mass murder?”

Why indeed? It seems like an anomaly: Everyone knows that people die every day, in a variety of circumstances. But ultimately, death tends to be a solitary event, afflicting a single person — whether it comes while one’s on a deathbed, or having a heart attack, or even through foul play. When several people die at once, as in a plane crash or a mass murder, the cause of those deaths is so out of the ordinary that it would seem to merit a stronger emotional reaction, even from those who didn’t lose friends or relatives.

But that’s not the case. Numbers create anonymity, and makes it easy for the detached observer to dehumanize the victims. They become abstractions, whether it’s a dozen food poisoning victims or six million Holocaust Jews.

Yet if you extract a single person from those legions of dead, reveal his or her name, tell the story of how he or she came to that point, and the perception changes. Suddenly, you’re forced to relate to a single person’s experience, instead of a faceless mass. That makes all the difference.

Robert Conquest, 87, a leading historian of Stalin’s terror and famine that left tens of millions of dead, said he too was sometimes hit by smaller episodes amid larger tragedy.

“There are details, not necessarily the most horrible in theory, that somehow make you feel this is somehow a worse world than we thought,” Conquest, the author of “The Great Terror” and “Harvest of Sorrow”, said in an interview.

He cited for example documents about students during the Stalin era forced to stand in front of their schools and hear abuse after their parents were arrested.

“They are harangued for two or three hours denouncing the parents of one of the kids. Then the kid has to come up and they are all screaming at him,” he said. “It shows the awful level they’ve got to. Horrible.”

Citing victims of Josef Stalin’s purges is oddly appropriate, since the most apt quote on this phenomenon is attributed to him*:

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.

I think this dynamic manifests itself in other areas. The perennial high-profile media-saturated criminal trials, such as the recent Scott Peterson case, are a prime example. Think about it: How many people are brutally killed every single day in America? Yet the same audiences that never give a passing thought to all those nameless (and thus, invisible) crimes pay breathless attention to every development in the latest media-circus du jour. Because the spotlight on the principals reveals minute personal detail, observers become engrossed, and participate in an uncomfortably intimate vicarious experience.

Similar situations where this mass reaction occurs include hostage situations and, more benignly, personal profiles on athletes.

I suppose it’s human nature to quickly seek empathy with the subject being studied. As with most empathic exercises, though, there’s a price to pay when that much emotional energy is invested. The collateral damage is sometimes too much to bear.


*Despite the attribution to Stalin, I’m positive he didn’t originate it. I know I read it at one point as coming from a French military head or politician during World War I. If anyone knows what the original source is and can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 02:48pm
Category: History, Society
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In the spirit of “miserable failure”, a Google search on the word “bastards” will spit out the website of a certain Unix provider, best known for trying to stamp out Linux through lawsuits, as the top search result.

Obviously, it’s another example of Google’s ranking algorithm being gamed, in this case by a determined group of Linux geeks. So does anyone want to explain to me again how “relevance” is at all meaningful for search results?

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 01:33pm
Category: Internet, Tech
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