Person to Person and Home to Home: TV News in the Pandemic
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


Jonathan Capehart broadcasting at home.
MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart broadcasting from home.

There has been some discussion in the
trades of the innovations cable news has adopted to enhance coverage of the
2020 pandemic. Of concern is whether the news channels will retain these
innovations in order to sustain their higher-than-usual ratings after this
coverage gives way to something else. The idea of an “after” for a crisis of
this magnitude and the coverage that has benefited from the horror of it all
recalls, in crass terms, the scrambling that occurs when a channel has ridden
high on a hit and must contemplate the follow-up. Television news has a hit on
its hands when things go horribly wrong; it then proceeds to organize the
disarray and process it through different personalities and program types
throughout the day. Flow, which I’ll touch on in just a bit, is a key factor in
the weight of a TV news narrative, and in the case of the pandemic, so is
emotion.  

News coverage of COVID-19 has flocked to micro-level stories. The unequal distribution of the virus across the country has made this not just one global or national story but an agglomeration of many different local stories made visible and televisual by homemade media. Selfies and video diaries of healthcare workers and other workers deemed essential made regular appearances on the news in the early days of the pandemic, as anchors and hosts ceded time to the people with exclusive access to the unfolding disaster.

From March through May of 2020, at the height of the first wave of the virus in the U.S., we saw samples of intimate self-disclosures in response to the violence perpetrated by politicians and systemic failures. We heard private feelings in stolen moments in cars, hospital corridors, and offices. Without a doubt, this was free content that added drama to a newscast. As media artifacts, though, they were not just one thing with one implication. They function in a few fascinating ways. They expanded the range of expression permitted on the news to include tearful seriousness—an acute and emotional awareness of the crisis and its consequences. They linked that emotion to the expertise of medical professionals, many of them nurses. And they demonstrated the accumulation of frustration and pain that cable news has embraced via flow.

If we can even begin to talk about the “after” of the programming event that is the pandemic, then that “after” has to be located within an assessment of the current state of television news. In other words, the imposition of an “after” butts up against what I have observed to be a shift in the mode of reporting on cable news. This shift is really in some ways a return to the early experimental format of the Satellite News Channel, described by Margaret Morse as “constant[ly] breaking and ever-changing.”[ (( Morse, Margaret, “The television news personality and credibility: reflections on the news in transition,” in Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, ed. Tanya Modleski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 73.))]


Arlene Francis on NBC's Home.
Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home.

Early and important work by Mary Anne Doane characterized television news programming as an “endless stream of information, each bit (as it were) self-destructing in order to make room for the next.”[ (( Doane, Mary Ann, “Information, crisis, catastrophe,” in Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. Patricia Mellencamp (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 224.))] Recently I have argued that in the Trump era, cable news flow departs from early formulas of repetition and fragmentation. It doesn’t repeat so much as it dwells. If repetition is about reminding, dwelling is about remembering. Flow on cable news, then, is “about memory and magnitude—not the resolution of but the accumulation of politically charged information, crises, and catastrophes across the day and, as we are seeing, across all days.”[ (( Jaramillo, Deborah Lynn, “Twitter Watchers: The Care and Feeding of Cable News Flow in the Age of Trump,” in A Companion to Television, 2nd ed., ed. Janet Wasko and Eileen Meehan (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), 248.))] Coverage of the recent protests in Minnesota, for example, never strayed very far from the context of COVID-19. Images of masked protesters, as well as reporters’ anxieties about social distancing in a crowd, reminded viewers of the damage done to black and brown bodies by the police, systemic racism, and the virus.

My work on news flow focused on politics, but as we have seen, the order of the day is the intertwining of politics and public health. There will be no “after” for this news event. Flow, as we now know it within this genre, will drag the events of this month into the next and the next, highlighting the consequences in the long, post-2016 narrative. But remember that there are the events themselves, and the way the events have been organized and communicated. In many ways, cable news has organized this intertwining of politics and public health for us by amplifying an emotional center located in private spaces and personal expressions.

This turn to the private and personal marks a noteworthy (though not absolute) rupture in TV news history. Traditionally, news has been regarded as a space for dispassionate discussions of public—not private—affairs. The rise of so-called opinion journalism eroded the “dispassionate” part, but the long-standing association of news with public affairs has coded it as a masculine genre, which is at odds with the medium associated so closely with women and domesticity. Consequently, it has been difficult for women to occupy positions of authority in news programming. Consider the treatment that Meet the Press creator and moderator Martha Rountree received from one viewer, who wrote in the early 1950s that Rountree “cluttered up” the show and that “this man’s job” should be filled by “a full size man.”[ (( Donald F. Hynes to NBC, May 8, 1952; Folder 44-3: National Broadcasting Company, New York, N.Y.; Box 61; RG 173; National Archives at College Park; College Park, MD. ))]


Arlene Francis on NBC's Home.
A wider photo of Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home, capturing her desk and flowers.

Although women were mostly excluded from the manufactured seriousness of TV news, the visual conventions of news made their way into women’s programming. For example, Arlene Francis included a news-style “bulletin” segment in her NBC daytime show Home (1954-1957). In one surviving episode, Francis, seated in an elaborate chair behind a tastefully appointed desk, reports on women’s clubs activities and is interrupted by a producer, who hands her a breaking news bulletin about Egypt and the United Nations. Donning the most fantastic glasses you’ve ever seen, Francis reads the bulletin, ad libs a response, and ultimately tosses to Lucille Rivers for some sewing tips. In many ways a model for what would become the “soft news” space of network morning shows, the Home clip takes the trappings of a news anchor—a desk and a chair—and dresses it in femininity and domesticity, exposing the construction of staid news conventions.

Dominant attitudes about the separation of
public and private affairs have not been specific to television. The discussion
of private matters on early radio advice shows was once regarded by the FCC as
point-to-point communication; they argued the delivery of advice to individual
listeners did not satisfy the intention of broadcasting. Private matters were
for the telephone. In the pandemic, the smartphone intervenes and bridges news
and personal narratives.

Audio-visual evidence of workers’ personal anguish in the face of a public health emergency evaporates the distinction between emotion and rationality. It’s also a very public acknowledgement that heartfelt emotion—the type of emotion associated with women—is worthy of TV news. At the same time, we’re seeing our usual TV news talking heads at home, mostly in front of bookshelves but also in living areas and kitchens. (Shout-out to Jonathan Capehart’s immaculate kitchen, pictured at top.) These glimpses into homes bring together private spaces and public affairs and chip away at the construction of professionalism as a masculine ideal that exists in a studio or in front of a bad stock image of a city skyline. What remains to be seen is if this peculiar narrativization of politics and public health, operating in and through private spaces and feelings, moves ahead in concert with relentless news flow.



Image Credits:

  1. MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart broadcasting from home (author’s screengrab)
  2. Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home (author’s screengrab)
  3. A wider photo of Arlene Francis on NBC’s Home, capturing her desk and flowers (author’s screengrab)


References:




Aging into TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


COVID-19's impact on age groups
COVID-19’s Generational Gaps in the United States

We are currently living through a pandemic, and even in this moment, generational differences are a source of both identity and tension. On Twitter, in the early days of the quarantine, Gen Xers displayed their self-isolation skills with pride. Millennials and Gen Xers expressed concern for aging parents and grandparents.  Many directed their ire at Gen Z for continuing to party. Old age is a key factor in the lethality of COVID-19, so it had not escaped anyone’s notice that Fox News—presumed to be the channel for older, conservative Americans—downplayed the threat. By March 15th, Fox walked it back. Suddenly, the threat was real.

Usually,
complaints against Fox News center on the political health of the nation; in
this instance, the issue was the physical health of its viewers. The stereotype
of the white-haired Fox News viewer is pervasive. A much-tweeted prank around
holiday season is the blocking of Fox News on older relatives’ television sets.
Grandma and grandpa will be apoplectic that their cherished news source has
disappeared, and they further will not have the technical know-how to restore
it. The political impetus for the prank is this: older Americans vote in
greater numbers than younger Americans, and Fox News has a fiercely loyal
audience for its Trumpist agenda. The older audience is, in fact, sizable (as
ratings for news programming go), but the full picture is a little more
complicated than that.

A 2018 Pew survey found that people over 50 get their news primarily from television.[ ((Shearer, Elisa. 2018. “Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source.” Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-print-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/.  Accessed March 12, 2020.))] 65% of people aged 50-64 typically flock to TV, and 81% of people over 65 do the same. While younger people favor social media, they pull from various sources; as the Pew study states, “No more than half of [people 18-49] get news often from any one news platform.” Age—as a marker of identity and a demographic variable attached to specific television genres and, when applicable, to the consumer products that advertise within those genres—has been on the radar of television scholars using diverse frameworks and pursuing diverse research agendas. But, as I noted in my 2019 column, TV news is frequently absent from our field’s conversations altogether. So, let’s dive into prime-time cable news and see who is watching what.

TV tends
to follow the young, but news has very rarely jumped on that bandwagon (one
recent exception is the concerted tilt toward True Crime in network news
divisions). As we know, the measurement of television audiences isolates
particular age ranges that carry value. For many shows, a certain rating or
share “in the demo” refers to how well that program performed among 18-49 year
olds. For news, “in the demo” refers to 25-54. It’s not an enormous jump up
from 18-49, but it is an admission that news operates according to a different
set of expectations in the market for audiences. A news channel isn’t punished,
in other words, for flourishing among 49-54 year olds. 

In 2013 I wrote a piece for Antenna discussing a pattern of contemporaneous programming strategies on two of NBC Universal’s cable channels, one of which was MSNBC. MSNBC’s aspirational strategy evinced a dissatisfaction with the dominant (read: older) viewership. The shuffling of hosts to different time slots, the hiring of young hosts, and especially the slotting of then-thirtysomething Chris Hayes into prime time signaled a leaning into, or, rather, a gazing dreamily into the eyes of young viewers. Now, by young, I don’t mean tweens. MSNBC’s placement of Radiohead’s “National Anthem” in their pro-resistance promos after the 2016 presidential election may give you a general sense of the audience MSNBC was targeting.


Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson
Jon Stewart humiliating Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004.

A quick look at the cable news primetime competition paints an interesting picture of a television genre splintering according to age in some unexpected ways. At 8pm, the competition for under-50s is a bit surprising. As recently as March 9th, Tucker Carlson Tonight (Fox News) outperformed All In with Chris Hayes (MSNBC) among 18-49 year olds and 25-54 year olds by a ratio of 2-to-1.[ ((Metcalf, Mitch. 2020. “SHOWBUZZDAILY’s Top 150 Monday Cable Originals & Network Finals: 3.9.20.” ShowBuzzDaily, March 10. http://www.showbuzzdaily.com/articles/showbuzzdailys-top-150-monday-cable-originals-network-finals-3-9-2020.html. Accessed March 11, 2020.))] Older viewers may remember Carlson from such TV moments as his humiliation by Jon Stewart on Crossfire in 2004 and, well, just his decision to wear bow ties on screen. That’s the guy with a larger number of younger viewers than Chris Hayes.

Even though Anderson Cooper 360 (CNN), the other 8pm competitor, had the fewest total viewers of the three, it outperformed All In in the 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54 demos. Crucially, it also had the fewest viewers over 50. For the legacy cable news channel to skew younger than MSNBC, which has worked to align itself with youthful progressive politics, may be one indication that MSNBC can’t shake its own legacy of being an also-ran. But for Fox News, the long-dominant, right-wing channel, to skew so much younger than its pop culture reputation lets on is an invitation to question dominant narratives about conservative TV news viewers.  

At 9pm the primary competition is more evenly matched. Hannity (Fox News) beat The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC) by only two hundredths of a rating point among 18-49 year olds, and it beat her in the 25-54 category by six hundredths of a point. Soak that in. Sean Hannity has cultivated a larger young(ish) audience than Rachel Maddow. Ultimately, fighting for younger viewers belies the fact that the bulk of all of these shows’ audiences is over 50. While Hannity earned a .46 rating in the key 25-54 demo, the program earned a 2.74 rating among viewers 50+. Similarly, Maddow saw a .40 in the key demo and a 2.35 in the 50+ demo. Which audience carries more value to the channel, to advertisers, and to our political parties, and can that value be consistent across all three entities? If the game is to skew younger, then Maddow may have an edge overall with slightly fewer younger viewers and not quite as large of an older audience.


Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity
Two major cable news competitors: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

Of course, prime time ratings offer just a snapshot, but the bigger picture is not much different. Fox News ranked 19th on the list of the top 20 basic cable channels of 2019 among 18-49 year-olds. To see it sitting there between Freeform and Lifetime gave me pause. How has Fox News tried to appeal to 18-49 year olds? MSNBC, for its part, has made some adjustments to no avail. The energy Hayes brings to his show via some of his guests, his hipster-adjacent vibe, and his pre-quarantine Friday format—live in front of a studio audience—failed to elevate his show to Maddow levels. And what of Hayes’ lead-in?

For reasons at least partially tied to his history of generally disgusting behavior toward women, long-time Hardball host Chris Matthews opened his 7pm show on March 3rd, announced his retirement, and split. Youthful, energetic mainstay Steve Kornacki—ever the team player—appeared in Matthews’ seat after the commercial break with no preparation. Kornacki’s emotional farewell to Matthews at the conclusion of the show may well have been a wave goodbye to the tradition of an older, white male host in the 7pm slot. In the meantime, the 7pm slot is in limbo as special pandemic coverage has upended business as usual.  One hopes that, when the crisis abates and the channel casts a permanent host, its decision will acknowledge how age intersects with a number of other crucial variables, especially in this political moment.



Image Credits:

  1. COVID-19’s Generational Gaps in the United States
  2. Jon Stewart humiliating Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004 (author’s screengrab)
  3. Two major cable news competitors: MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Fox News’ Sean Hannity (author’s screengrab)

References:




Finding the ‘TV’ in TV News
Deborah L. Jaramillo / Boston University


image description
PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast.

There’s a classic moment in The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996) that goes something like this.  Grivo, a depressed, chest-baring aggro rocker, looks out onto his audience and softly declares, “I wanna talk about drugs.”  A lone voice in the crowd yells, “Heroin!”  Grivo replies, “No, not heroin.”  “Speed!” the crowd offers.  “No, not speed.”  Undeterred, the crowd excitedly tries again: “Hashish!”  “No, not even hashish.”  Stumped, the crowd pauses for a moment and finally asks, “Horse tranquilizers?”  “No, not horse tranquilizers.” 

This
is how I feel about TV news in the academy. 
Stay with me now.

I,
a moody and naturally lethargic TV scholar, say to anyone who will listen, “I
wanna talk about TV news.”  A loud voice
says, “Like journalists do?”  No, not
like journalists do.  Another voice
chimes in, “Oh, like in political communication!”  No, not like in political communication.  “Rhetoric!” 
No, not even rhetoric.  “Media
Effects?”  No, not media effects.

I
wanna talk about TV news as television.


image description
All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.

When
I began writing my dissertation on cable news war coverage in 2005, I was
indebted to the small slice of television scholarship that existed on the
subject of news.  Not communication
scholarship or journalism scholarship, but television scholarship.  The work of Margaret Morse showed me there
was thoughtful analysis of television news as a genre of storytelling and
meaning-making within the culture industries.  John Caldwell’s discussion of television news
as a vessel for televisuality treated the fusion of style and industry in this
neglected genre with great clarity. 
Thankfully, we have since seen more studies that have analyzed images,
sounds, discourse, and industry structure to explain how television news has
shaped certain historical moments.  And
research on television news parodies has
reminded us that news is a television genre. 
Yet, significant gaps remain in our research and in our teaching.

One persistent problem is the vastness and ephemerality of the artifact.  Studying TV news is hard because there’s just so much of it, and it’s not meant to be repackaged and rewatched.  It’s local, it’s national, it’s all day, it’s everyday.  Some is archived (thank you, Texas Archive of the Moving Image), some is not.  Where do you start?  What is the unit of analysis?  To that sense of helplessness, I point to radio scholars who face tremendous odds as they hunt for recordings and scripts.  I also point to scholars like Elana Levine who study soap operas with thousands upon thousands of episodes.  So, what is the issue, really?  Do we really believe it’s not TV?  It’s News?  


image description
NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs.

A
vast repository of research on television news is available to pick through,
but very little of it takes up the concerns of the field of Television
Studies.  In short, the majority of
television news research is on television
news
—not on television news.  I’m not arguing that one approach is superior
to the other; I am simply saying that the diversification of research on this
topic will similarly diversify the conversation about how the news exists and
has existed within the television landscape, with an eye to all of the
intersecting axes that concern television scholars. 

Now, I’m going to veer into some scholarly territory for a moment, so please bear with me.  In a 2018 article, Robinson, Zeng, and Holbert found that while political communication scholarship has de-emphasized the role of television in delivering political information, television remains a dominant source of political news in the face of online and mobile competition (287, 297).  Moreover, this dominance is not confined to the U.S.; the authors find that it “transcends national borders and class divisions” (296). In addressing the lack of attention paid to television news by political communication scholars, the authors posit that the prevailing theoretical frameworks used to study political media—“framing, priming, and agenda setting”—are medium agnostic and thus render a medium-specific analysis “unnecessary” (297).


image description
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news.

There you go.  The dominance of news media analysis informed by these frameworks makes it seem as though (1) these theories hold universal explanatory power; (2) television is interchangeable with any other medium; (3) television is not a complex, historically determined intermixture of technology, industry, culture, stylistic influences, and viewer behaviors; and (4) news is not just one type of television program sitting adjacent to and opposite other types of programs, being influenced by them and competing against them in a landscape shaped by decades-old broadcasting companies, advertisers, and regulations.  But here’s another (related) part of the problem.  The fields that dominate news research have not excluded others.  We just haven’t jumped in with both feet.

TV
Studies is a vibrant field that, for reasons well known to all of us, keeps
having to fight for legitimacy in the academy. 
As we watch scholars from other fields dip into TV, claim the so-called
“good” bits for their courses, treat those bits as literature or film, and then
get praise in the press for turning TV into something worthy of study, why
don’t we make the most of the name of our field and imprint our expertise on all of television?  Sports media scholars are the latest to make
this case successfully.  The recent
creation of the Sports Media Scholarly Interest Group at SCMS is an encouraging
sign, not just for the study of televised sports, but for the study of the
overlap between sports and TV news.  Yes,
I just inserted myself into their glory, but I do see it as a win for anyone
who veers away from the dominant script. 


image description
The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars.

In
my remaining columns for Flow I’ll
continue to sing this news tune in a few different ways, hopefully offering
something positive to the field’s ongoing conversations about how we study TV and
why we study it in the ways we do.



Image Credits:

  1. PBS NEWSHOUR, the nation’s first hour-long nightly news telecast (author’s screengrab)
  2. All In with Chris Hayes promoting its new Friday live shows on Twitter.
  3. NBC’s Today, one of the network’s flagship news/talk show programs (author’s screengrab)
  4. CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell, covering the latest Trump administration news (author’s screengrab)
  5. The NFL Today on CBS, discussing the president’s comments on NFL stars (author’s screengrab)


References:

Robinson, Nicholas W., Chen Zeng, and R. Lance Holbert. 2018. “The Stubborn Pervasiveness of Television News in the Digital Age and the Field’s Attention to the Medium, 2010-2014.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 62(2): 287-301.