I’m just old enough to remember there was a time before cable, a time when there were 3 basic TV stations and every evening around 6:00 PM each station broadcast their own version of the national news. As I recall, it really didn’t make a difference what station you tuned into, the national news of the day was pretty much the same on each channel. The only difference seemed to be the personality of the Anchorman, think Brinkley, Cronkite, Reasoner. It was a time when you could turn on your TV at 6:00 and for the next 30 minutes feel confident you were informed, that you were being told the truth, that what Brinkley, Cronkite and Reasoner said was real, that they were men of integrity, that they could be believed. Is was also a time when television network leadership believed that broadcasting the news was a public service, something that didn’t need to bring in revenue, it wasn’t intended to be a cash cow.
Then came the 80’s, bad perms, oversized shoulder pads, stirrup pants and the emergence of 24 hour cable news. Little by little over the next few decades the 24 cable news cycle became the norm. Fueled by stories like the Challenger explosion and Clinton Impeachment hearings, people began to change their news habits. Instead of relying on one 30 minute news segment once a day, they could access news 24 hours a day 7 days a week. For the real news junkies, it was a dream come true.
Of course with 24 hour a day news coverage comes ratings and revenue, so the old model of broadcast news not being a money making venture turned into a money making cash cow. And how does one make money in the age of cable? By selling ads, and how do advertisers know where to place those ads? With the cable news station with the most eyeballs, and how does a cable station get lots of eyeballs? Well, we know now its not by the typical 30 minute broadcast with the traditional anchorman.
So just how did cable news grow? It had to become more of broadcasting pure entertainment 24 hours a day with just a bit of news to keep people watching. The news stories that would previously be reported as “just the facts” had morphed into tables of experts dissecting details that could lead viewers into areas that potentially pit one group of people against another. Fact checking became an afterthought for some of these stations and little by little it was less about the news and more about the individual personalities giving their opinions.
I have to admit, since I retired, I watched cable news while I ate lunch, I got to like some of the personalities. At night we’d fall into the routine of watching non cable news, 30 minutes of BBC followed by 60 minutes of the PBS Newshour. We appreciated the calm demeanor of the PBS hosts and their guests, the non-shouting polite discourse, it was so unlike my lunch date with cable news. It was like in The Crown when everyone gets fancy at night and is well behaved.
And now for this year, we made a decision not to watch any news, no cable for me at lunch, no PBS news at night. It was strange at first, but as the weeks now have morphed in the second month of this experiment, we’re adjusting. We still keep informed, we have phones and I have a Twitter feed that can make me nuts….and we find our evenings to be just a bit more relaxed, it’s hard to get upset when watching Rick Steves touring Switzerland or one of my all-time favorites, Lucy Worsley documenting British history.