THE BLOG

Is 'Breaking News' the New Normal for ABC?

05/25/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2016

You can't entirely blame ABC News for desperately trying to find a way to remain relevant. After all, they're hard-wired into a 6:30 p.m. time slot in a world where our connected devices deliver real-time updates.

Over the past few years, they've tried to test varies ways to seem more digital. With Diane Sawyer in the anchor chair some years back, they began the 'index' a buzz-feed like snappy segment of YouTube viral videos and snackable bites of celebrity gossip. It certainly wasn't going to win them any journalistic kudos, but it was harmless enough. At the same time, then reporter David Muir set out to fire up the audience with a series of 'Made In America' segments that turned an objective news broadcast into a leader of social activism. Field producers were instructed to gather together families, factory workers, and other pro-American consumers and have them hold up a piece of green fabric and chant in unison "Made In AMERICA!". As the reports continued and the cost of labor in China rose along with shipping costs, ABC happily reported a resurgence in American manufacturing with a wink and a nod. It was almost as if their campaign had changed the economy of the country. They never came out and said it - but you got the idea. And Muir was rewarded with the anchor chair when Sawyer retired.

But now ABC has succumbed to the pressures of their landlocked time period and the encroachment of the internet with a new, and particularly craven device.

They've adopted a nightly ritual -- starting about three weeks ago -- of promising urgency at the top of every broadcast.

"BREAKING NEWS" -- Muir opens the nightly newscast with this headline, day after day. Breaking weather news. Breaking news in the days' latest police shooting. Breaking news in court verdicts. Breaking news in the Presidential election. With almost breathless exuberance, Muir promises viewers something 'just in' -- so that there's no chance viewers will turn the channel or fast-forward through their DVR.

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By adopting the moniker of Breaking News, ABC's senior management is struggling to remain relevant -- offering something urgent, timely, and important with breathless excitement that repackages plain old facts as red-hot infotainment.

Historically, 'Breaking News' had meaning. It had to meet stringent standards to be given bold-type urgency and 'this just in' import.

But ABC, and one suspects some careful focus group testing, has decided that quality journalism isn't enough to remain relevant. If Facebook and Twitter are now competing for attention, ABC needs to up the ante with a shot of adrenaline and the promise of earth shattering timeliness that will break through the clutter.

Clearly Muir and ABC News Management know its cynical device. Information that they have in hand at 10am, or 1pm can't seriously be called 'breaking news' at 6:30pm without rendering the phrase meaningless. But it hardly matters since they're trying to hold back the ocean of irrelevance that's about to overtake them.

Certainly they're not without a plan 'b', as ABC has a deal with Yahoo, and Muir now records a quick newscast for Facebook each day.

But in taking the time-honored tradition of 'Breaking News' and turning it into a marketing phrase, ABC risks taking a subtle but unredeemable step down an ever slipperier slope.

The journey from News to Noise begins with a series of modest little journalistic faux pas. But it is a rubicon, once crossed, for which there is no turning back.