Much has been made lately of changes in the world of television news. Brokaw and Rather have left their respective nightly newscasts, and people have begun to question whether those very newscasts have become dinosaurs in the age of 24-hour cable news networks and the internet.
However, very few people have given credit (or blame) to the man most responsible for the changing nature of today??¢â???¬â???¢s television news coverage. I??¢â???¬â???¢m talking about O.J. Simpson. As he prowls the nation??¢â???¬â???¢s golf courses searching for the real murderers of his ex-wife, let us not forget that it was the Simpson saga that taught TV news directors an important lesson: a Big Story can generate big numbers and big profits. Without a Big Story, ratings take a tumble, so it??¢â???¬â???¢s important to have that one dominating story that goes on and on and on.
Some Big Stories are obvious: 9/11 and The War in Iraq, but some Big Stories have to be elevated to that status to keep all the talking heads talking: Gary Condit, Laci Peterson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson. Without a new daily chapter in an ongoing Big Story soap opera, the news is just the news. How the heck do you promote that?
The major networks gave the Simpson story extensive coverage, pre-empting a lot of their regular programming to do it, and their payoff was big ratings. However, they also unknowingly began digging the graves of their own news divisions, because it was the cable networks that were better suited to apply the lessons learned from the O.J. coverage.
So you now have the spectacle of fancy graphics on Fox New Channel, MSNBC, CNBC and CNN day after day and night after night promoting the current Big Story (usually the same one). Hour upon hour of speculation, discussion and argument from pseudo-experts and peripheral players in these events keep millions glued to their sets. New developments seem to occur every hour, even though they are very rarely new and frequently not even developments. In this world of the Big Story, there can even be ??¢â???¬?????Breaking News??¢â???¬ at a trial while the jury is asleep. A neat trick.
The barn door is already closed, and there??¢â???¬â???¢s no going back. However, a plus side does exist, because there is a certain comfort in waking up and finding that Michael Jackson is still the Big Story. At least it tells you that nothing horrible has happened in the world that would force them to move on to real news.
Little did we realize, as we watched the Ford Bronco travel along California??¢â???¬â???¢s freeways and listened to O.J. Simpson on his cell phone, that he — and we — were being driven into the era of the Big Story. Thanks for nothing, O.J.