Paddy Chayefsky had it right of course way back in 1976 in Network. Entertainment divisions have virtually taken over news divisions at the networks. Entertainment was supposed to make the profit to sustain journalism. The news divisions weren't counted on to make money. Their thing was to get the story. It was deemed necessary back then to a country attempting to be a democracy.
Now that entertainment rules and news has to make money, are we surprised that a prime time, middle-of-the-week, over-the-air presidential debate would be conducted on an 8th grade level?
It's about ratings. You show advertisers better ratings; you get more money from them. ABC certainly got the ratings: more than ten million viewers. It was the most watched debate of the campaign.
Do you think ABC didn't know who their audience would be? Do you think this wasn't researched well in advance and that the questions fed Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos weren't geared to that audience?
This was not a debate on a Saturday night on MSNBC last summer when the audience would be vastly different: more political junkies with a serious interest in the process and the issues well before the lower-tiered candidates were weeded out.
This was a prime time audience on ABC on a Wednesday night that drew a larger, less sophisticated audience. They may have even been, dare I say it, a bit bitter about politicians.
ABC's market research apparently showed that keeping questions to the level of flag pins and what your pastor thinks would draw and keep an audience tuned in.
Hence, the worst debate ever.
If the news departments were independent, ratings wouldn't matter as much as journalism. The challenge should be to get audience numbers without dumbing it down. The aim would be to skillfully raise the audience to the level of the candidates, not the reverse; to explain to a broad audience how major events and issues directly affect their lives instead of pandering to ignorance to make a buck. We heard a lot about gasoline, because most Americans know gasoline, but was it linked to the war in Iraq, depleting energy resources or climate change?
We need to be diverted sometimes to refocus on what's serious. That's the value of entertainment. But when what's serious is treated like a diversion too, then we're in trouble.
TV news has been this way for decades. We shouldn't be surprised. But we should be very worried.