Good earnings from unhealthy information: How the Kennedy assassination helped make community TV information rich

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Good earnings from unhealthy information: How the Kennedy assassination helped make community TV information rich

In journalism, unhealthy information sells. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a well-known {industry} catchphrase, which explains why violent crime, conflict and terrorism, and pure disasters are ubiquitous on TV information.

The truth that journalists and their employers generate income from troubling occasions is one thing researchers hardly ever discover. However even when it appears distasteful, the hyperlink between unfavourable information and revenue is essential to know. As a media historian, I feel learning this subject can make clear the forces that form up to date journalism.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy 60 years in the past presents a case research. After a gunman killed the president, tv information supplied wall-to-wall, nonstop protection at appreciable price to the networks. This earned TV information a fame for public-spiritedness that lasted a long time.

This fame – which can appear shocking now however was extensively accepted on the time – obscured the truth that TV information would quickly turn into enormously worthwhile. These earnings are due partially as a result of terrible information attracts large audiences – which stays the case immediately.

The JFK assassination made Individuals flip to TV information

Shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the TV networks demonstrated their sensitivity to the tragedy by canceling commercials and devoting all their airtime to the story for a number of days. CBS President Frank Stanton would later name it “the longest uninterrupted story within the historical past of tv.” At one level, 93% of all U.S. TVs have been tuned into the protection.

As televisions report information of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a girl weeps in a Sears division retailer in Levittown, Pa.
Jack Rosen/Getty Photos

Estimates range, however the networks’ resolution to forgo advertisements might have price them as a lot as US$19 million – which is $191 million in 2023 {dollars}.

For many years, the networks introduced their assassination protection as the epitome of public service. And again and again, community executives and journalists argued that TV information was uniquely shielded from the financial pressures discovered elsewhere in broadcasting.

TV information within the early Nineteen Sixties was “the loss chief that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the big earnings made by their leisure divisions,” ABC Information’ Ted Koppel reminisced in The Washington Publish in 2010. He added, “It by no means occurred to the community brass that information programming might be worthwhile.”

The general public-service narrative that took root in November 1963 ignored the truth that the massive audiences turning to TV information for info and luxury would quickly turn into very profitable.

How TV information turned a cash machine

Solely two months earlier than Kennedy’s assassination, in September 1963, the networks expanded their night newscasts to half-hour. They’d beforehand been quarter-hour, providing little greater than headlines. The expanded newscasts offered out all their promoting alternatives instantly, as tv information drew the predictable every day mass audiences that sponsors craved.

The Kennedy assassination protection, mixed with the expanded newscasts, considerably elevated the industrial worth of TV information. All through the Nineteen Sixties, broadcast journalism started to mature into essentially the most profitable style of programming on American tv.

By the 1965-1966 tv season, NBC’s “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” generated $27 million in promoting a yr, making it the community’s most profitable program – out-earning even “Bonanza,” the highest leisure present. “The CBS Night Information” was drawing in $25.5 million in promoting, making it the second-most worthwhile program on U.S. tv.

Round this time, networks have been telling regulators that that they had sacrificed tens of millions of {dollars} for public service by journalism. For instance, in 1965 testimony earlier than the Federal Communications Fee, executives from ABC, CBS and NBC stated their information divisions had loftier motives than merely earning money.

However they have been earning money, and plenty of it. By 1969, “Huntley-Brinkley” was incomes $34 million in promoting on a manufacturing finances of $7.2 million, making this system – in keeping with Fortune journal – “the most important income that the N.B.C. community has – larger than ‘Giggle-In’ or ‘The Dean Martin Present.’” A decade earlier, “Huntley-Brinkley” had been making simply $8 million in advert and sponsorship income.

In a black-and-white photo, two news anchors, one smoking a pipe, are seen sitting in a broadcast studio at the Miami Beach Convention Center. In the background, conventioneers are seen milling around and a sign reads 'VICTORY IN 68'
Chet Huntley and David Brinkley broadcast from the Republican Nationwide Conference in 1968.
Ben Martin/Getty Photos

The networks didn’t tout their earnings, although. As an alternative, they frequently promoted their efforts protecting the Vietnam Battle, civil unrest and the assassinations of the Nineteen Sixties as service within the public curiosity. In addition they claimed that information manufacturing price them tens of millions, and so they hid advert revenues accrued by information programming elsewhere of their company budgets. Doing this gave them a leg up on regulatory privileges, reminiscent of station license renewals.

The beginning of contemporary TV information

Finally, the chaotic, cacophonous and complicated decade of the Nineteen Sixties would find yourself launching the hyper-commercial media world we dwell in immediately. Chasing sensational investigative tales, reminiscent of Watergate and the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, would generate larger rankings and extra promoting income, and switch broadcast journalists into nationwide celebrities.

The unique values animating community broadcast journalism at its inception would give up to extra profitable codecs. “60 Minutes” – a CBS Information manufacturing – finally turned essentially the most beneficial network-owned programming property within the historical past of American tv, and by the Eighties virtually each native information station had launched its personal “I-Workforce” investigations group.

Finally, the professionalism that drew audiences to TV information within the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963 can be supplanted by viewers development methods offered by TV information consultants. Viewers analytics, minute-by-minute engagement metrics and Q-scores calibrating anchor “likability” would standardize codecs and homogenize newsgathering within the drive to maximise earnings.

But by the a long time, one fixed stays: Unhealthy information sells. It’s a media-industry truism whether or not we’d like to review it or not, and the information broadcasts airing immediately, 60 years after the occasions of November 1963, show it.


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