Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I laughed so hard I almost choked on my wad of Bazooka gum when I heard Brian Williams offer this teaser at the top of Monday's broadcast: "Sarah Palin's parting shot and when we might hear from her again." Is he kidding me? Apparently, we'll be hearing from Palin quite a bit on Nightly News. We've already seen Palin stories for four straight days, even when there's nothing new to report. Why? The answer is obvious. More than anything else, the Nightly News producers are concerned with attracting viewers so they can achieve the highest ratings and charge the highest ad rates. Therefore, the producers make a point of airing stories based not on their news value, but based on their ability to attract viewers. By using focus groups, google searches, Q score testing and other evaluation tools, the NBC News research department is constantly determining which subjects and stories the viewers want to see. Obviously, the researchers have informed the producers that Sarah Palin tests very high in viewer interest. So naturally, the producers make a point of showing plenty of Sarah Palin stories. That's why it was so funny to hear Brian suggest that Nightly News airs Palin stories only when there is some newsworthy reason for doing so. Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum. It's true that Nightly News features Palin frequently because she's popular, but it's also true that part of the reason she's popular is because Nightly News features her so frequently. So which comes first--the chicken or the egg?

Remember "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"? At one point, when the viewer interest was high, it was airing four nights a week in prime time. But as soon as interest waned, the show was cancelled. That's how Nightly News determines what stories to air. Whatever is popular becomes the news (and whatever is news becomes popular). Of course, that method may be acceptable for programming a game show, but it is certainly not appropriate for prioritizing a news broadcast.

The same is true of the Henry Louis Gates/Cambridge Police Department racial profiling case. The story will remain prominent on Nightly News as long as the researchers determine that there is high viewer interest. On Saturday, Nightly News ran two stories (totalling more than five minutes) on the Prof. Gates/Sgt. Crowley situation. And Nightly News continued to run stories on the subject on Sunday and Monday. Sunday's story about the Cambridge Police Department ended with the camera following a police car as it rode down the street. But there was one problem. The police car was from the Somerville Police Department, not the Cambridge Police Department. Somerville is a separate and distinct city from Cambridge and had absolutely no connection with the incident involving Prof. Gates. So why did Nightly News show a Somerville Police car? I guess as far as the producers are concerned, all police cars look alike. Especially around the tires. Clearly, the Nightly News producers are guilty of radial profiling.

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