Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nightly News Helps Its Advertisers. Again.

Every Nightly News viewer knows that one of the main responsibilities of Brian Williams and his producers is to use their broadcast to promote NBC's advertisers. This happens over and over and over again. Cheerios, McDonald's, Bayer, Chrysler, Campbell's, GlaxoSmithKline, Walmart...the list goes on and on. Saturday's lead Nightly News story was about Christmas shopping on "Super Saturday". Since a newscast's lead story is traditionally the most important news story of the day, it's clear that the producers felt that Christmas shopping was a much more important story than some of the stories that followed: The payroll tax cut extension, the continuing protests in Cairo, the flooding in the Philippines and the 2012 Republican presidential race. During this all-important lead story, correspondent Michelle Franzen enthusiastically informed us of the following breaking news: "Target offering a $10 gift card with every $75 purchase until noon. J.C. Penney slashing up to 70% off clothing, jewelry and electronics. And Sears not only offering discounts but staying open until midnight through next week." Is it just me, or does that sound a lot like a commercial? And just in case her message wasn't clear enough, the accompanying on-screen graphics drove home the point. As Franzen spoke, we were shown huge logos of each retailer with a written explanation of the discounts and holiday hours she was describing. A cynical person might think that Nightly News included these retailers in the story as a way of giving a great big "thank you" (a holiday present, so to speak) to some of NBC Universal's best advertisers. And a very cynical person might conclude that these retailers actually paid NBC to be included in a contrived Nightly News "news story" about holiday shopping that was especially created just to showcase these particular advertisers. Good thing I'm not a cynical person.

On Sunday's broadcast, the final story was a ridiculous piece about the supposed nostalgia trend in current movies. This 2:15 story featured two full minutes of movie clips. I wish that one of the Nightly News producers would explain to me how a story about movies--made up almost entirely of movie clips--qualifies as news. Clearly, it doesn't. But the NBC News research department has obviously informed Brian and his producers that viewers love to see movie (and TV) clips on news broadcasts and that these clips drive up the ratings. And ratings are the most important thing for Brian and his producers. Sunday's story featured clips from "My Week With Marilyn", "The Tree of Life", "The Artist", "Midnight in Paris", "War Horse" and "Hugo". But this is nothing new for Nightly News viewers. Since Nov. 1, Nightly News has also featured clips from the following movies or television shows: "Mad Men", "9 to 5", "Animal House", "Field of Dreams", "A Prairie Home Companion", "60 Minutes", "The Biggest Loser", "Tower Heist", "Taking Chance", "Spinal Tap", "11-11-11", "Saturday Night Live" (on four separate broadcasts), "The Wizard of Oz", "West Side Story", "Gypsy", "Miracle on 34th Street", "Live with Regis and Kelly", "The Muppets", "Puss in Boots", "Happy Feet Two", "We Bought a Zoo", "Golden Girls", "A Hard Day's Night", "Late Show with David Letterman", "The Dr. Oz Show", "Today", "Cleopatra", "National Velvet", "The Perfect Storm", "Celebrity Apprentice", "M*A*S*H" (TV show), "Dragnet" (TV show), "Batman" (TV show), "30 Rock", "A Christmas Story", "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "The Ides of March". That's quite an impressive list. On average, Nightly News shows movie or TV clips on half of its broadcasts (and many broadcasts feature more than one movie or TV clip). Some of these clips ("30 Rock", "Today", "Celebrity Apprentice", "The Biggest Loser", SNL) are of course meant to promote NBC Universal TV shows or movies. What's the point of having a newscast if you can't use it to rabidly promote your entertainment (and sports) shows? But another reason Nightly News shows so many movie and TV clips is because they are a way to maintain viewer interest. With viewers' attention spans declining sharply, these clips are a crafty way to keep us tuned in. Who doesn't want to see George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep or Tina Fey on the news? Brian and NBC News president Steve Capus are desperate to attract more of those valuable 18- to 35-year-old viewers that advertisers so dearly covet (and pay for). And showing movie and TV clips is a good way to attract them. Turning Nightly News into "Access Hollywood" or "Extra" is a great way to boost the ratings and drive up the price of commercials.

So Sunday's "news story" about nostalgia in movies was a ratings gimmick. But like the previous night's story about great bargains on "Super Saturday", it was also a way to thank some regular NBC advertisers. Movie studios spend a tremendous amount of money advertising their films on all of the NBC Universal stations (between NBC Universal and Comcast, the mega-conglomerate owns almost two dozen network and cable TV stations). So these Nightly News stories about movies are one way for the NBC executives to thank the movie studios for all their advertising dollars over the years (just like Nightly News frequently airs glowing "news stories" about cars as a way to thank all their sponsors in the auto industry). Again, a cynical person might conclude that these "news stories" featuring movie clips are part of a paid advertising package that the studios purchase. But I'll let everyone draw their own conclusions on that subject. I wouldn't want it to seem like I'm trying to unduly influencing anyone.

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