MEDIA

USA Today—the television sequel

MARK NICHOLS August 15 1988
MEDIA

USA Today—the television sequel

MARK NICHOLS August 15 1988

USA Today—the television sequel

MEDIA

Six years ago, the U.S. communications giant Gannett Co. Inc. launched an audacious new venture—an upbeat daily newspaper that is distributed five mornings a week in cities across the United States and Canada. USA Today now sells an average of 1.63 million copies a day and has earned the grudging respect of many journalists, who admire the paper’s organization of information while attacking its relatively superficial handling of news. Now, to the consternation of its critics, Gannett is preparing to launch another unusual venture. Starting on Sept. 12, television stations in more than 150 U.S. cities will begin carrying a syndicated show entitled USA Today: The Television Show. With U.S. network news organizations under heavy pressure to win wider audiences, critics have expressed concern that the show will hasten the trend toward more shallow TV news programming—or, in a phrase being used by U.S. media critics to describe the trivialization of television news, “nanoid journalism.”

When USA Today was launched, its colorful graphics and short articles were inspired by TV news techniques. Now, the effort to translate the newspaper’s winning formula onto the screen will result in a 30-minute TV program emphasizing human interest themes and celebrities rather than the more detailed national and international news reports that are the staple of serious newspaper and television news. According to Gannett publicists, a typical program might start with a 4 V2-minute feature item (sample: “Kids taking care of parents— a role reversal some of us love”) and move on to a personality item followed by two minutes of what producers call “animated fun facts.” Each program will include what executive producer Steven M. Friedman calls “the journalism of hope,” which would emphasize the survivors—rather than the casualties—of an air crash. Said Robert T. Sutton, president of Tampa, Fla.-based Media General Broadcast Group, which owns three television stations: “ USA Today could change the way networks do newscasts.”

That is what worries some proponents of serious television news who are already alarmed about the drift away from serious news coverage that is apparent in some U.S. news and, to adesser extent, Canadian broadcasting. Said Fred W. Friendly, a former head of CBS News who is now a journalism

professor at New York City’s Columbia University: “I have always thought of USA Today as a television program you can wrap fish in. This completes the circle.”

The criticism has not discouraged Arlington, Va.-based Gannett from go-

ing ahead with a project that will involve heavy financial backing as well as an impressive array of talent. Gannett, the $4.27-billion media empire headed by hard-driving chairman Allen Neuhrath, 64, currently publishes 89 daily U.S. newspapers, including The Des Moines Register and The Detroit News. The corporation also owns 26 television and radio stations, including WUSA TV in Washington, D.C.

The new program will be produced by a subsidiary of GTG Entertainment Inc., a firm jointly controlled by Gannett and Grant Tinker, a former president of NBC. Gannett, which has already spent $14 million preparing for the launching of USA Today: The Tele-

vision Show, plans an annual operating budget of $152 million.

Indeed, Gannett’s new program will pose an immediate threat to network news programs in some parts of the country. Officials at WUSA TV say that they plan to broadcast USA Today at 7 p.m., displacing the CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, which will move to the less-watched 6:30 p.m. time slot. If other stations follow suit, it will be an-

other damaging blow to the prestige of U.S. network news operations, which, critics say, increasingly are moving away from serious news and analysis toward shorter and more frivolous items. The trend is the result of converging forces. Because of poor ratings and declining advertising revenues, the major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC and ABC—have been forced to operate with reduced budgets and fewer reporters.

Some media experts also say that the changes reflect a weariness on the part of viewers who apparently want a break from the bombardment of information on network and cable television. In search of something lighter, many Americans are turning to game shows and other lighter entertainment. “People are saying that they have had enough,” declared Robert D. Jacobs, president of the marketing arm of GTG Entertainment Inc. That trend concerns many observers of American society and its news organizations. Last month, the highly regarded men’s fashion magazine GQ published an article by freelance writer Ron Powers pointing to the threat posed by nanoids. Thanks to nanoidism, predicted Powers, “all the disputations and mendacities of the modern world seem to dissolve into a computer graphic.”

So far, similar moves away from se-

rious news reporting have been less noticeable on Canadian television. On Sept. 5, the privately owned CTV network will expand its evening national news broadcast to 30 minutes from 20 minutes. John Owens, chief news editor for CBC Television’s The National, said he thinks that viewers “turn to us as a news program of record, and I think they expect insights from us about things they might not know about.”

Still, George Bain, the Maclean's columnist who is a former director of the journalism department at Halifax’s King’s College, says he has noticed that the CBC’S Journal has begun showing “more popular news, a lot of junk items that don’t constitute a very in-depth follow-up to the national news.” As well, Bain said that television is beginning to make newspapers less conscientious about their news coverage. “There is a tendency,” said Bain, “to regard news as just another form of entertainment. The drive among people to be well informed does not appear to be any stronger in Cana-

da than it is in the United States.” Meanwhile, critics saw more evidence of USA Today's potential for influencing television last month when Michael Gartner, an influential Iowa newspaper editor who also served as a consultant at USA Today, was chosen to succeed Lawrence Grossman as president of NBC’S news division. Still, despite the apparent threat to TV news, Americans are likely to find more— rather than fewer — news-related programs being aired on network TV in the coming months. Despite last week’s settlement of the 150-day television writers’ strike, it will require some time before new entertainment programs can be produced. As a result, the networks will partly fill the gap with new and expanded news programs until just before Christmas. The enriched diet of news and public-affairs programming could even win converts just as USA Today: The Television Show makes its controversial debut.

-MARK NICHOLS with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington

WILLIAM LOWTHER