Evolving TV – news

Inform, inspire, innovate, interpret, invigorate…

Sometimes change is hard to spot. It creeps up on you while you’re busy.

We didn’t suddenly get fat, and TV’s didn’t suddenly get thin.

Or rather they did, though you wouldn’t know by Googling ‘Television’, where your screen will be covered with images of boxy numbers from the 1960s with aerials, legs and dials you have to turn to change channel.

Nothing stands still...

Nothing stands still…

When you Google ‘computer’, does it bring up images of Mr Babbage standing next to a massive loom-like counting device? It does not.

But consider the way news on TV has changed over the years.

If you made an Evolution of Man style  graphic, for News on the left there’d be a simian Kenneth Kendall, then Angela Rippon dressed in animal skin with a club, and at the end Sophie Raworth standing tall, wearing sensible clothes.

Here’s a spider graphic.  I call it that because it has 8 eyes.  It captures some changes to the way news has been delivered on TV

Changing news


The news was read out by newsreaders at fixed times. It told us what was going on.  The state of our nation. The presenters were patrician figures.


Audience members were encouraged to participate. Question Time and other programmes enabled the public to ask questions directly.  A woman tackled Mrs Thatcher about the Belgrano. User-generated content is increasingly seen on screen, and editors are influenced by what is ‘selling’ on Twitter.


Filling time.  From bulletins to a steady stream – less what’s happened to what’s happening – providing 24 hour news helped increased our capacity for it, like Parkinson’s law. Breakfast TV began in 1983 and the 24-hour news era in 1989 with Sky News.


Filling space.  The TV news used to appear on the big box in the living room. Then in offices and hotels (still largely unmeasured). Then transport, where it really wasn’t wanted. It’s now insinuated itself all over the house thanks to mobiles and tablets – you can watch Jon Snow when having a shit (you not him).

Inspire (or instigate):

News on TV is no longer the end point, but the starting point.  Stories appear here, and viewers can find out more on the net. It’s the way good teaching works – it isn’t about telling you facts, but teaching you curiosity, setting you off with a starter pack of information. Before the net you couldn’t do this, except perhaps ask your Dad who that funny man is. (Son, that’s Ted Heath. He’s the Prime Minister).


Many viewers who don’t bother with the formal bulletins claim to get as much ‘news’ from 8 Out of 10 Cats, Gogglebox, Russell Howard’s Good News and HIGNFY than the actual news. News stories can be told through drama or jokes. This is especially important for (younger) viewers in their I don’t care and you can’t make me phase. Anyway, they’re called news stories for a reason, and good stories can be told in lots of ways.


Trusted news services aren’t just there to tell you what has happened – that’s a commodity these days – but to make sense of it. To provide a new angle. It’s what the TV does well (and the internet can complicate) – making it real. Showing what really matters for people who don’t have the energy or interest to look it all up themselves, and balancing the shrillness of other news sources.


Voting turnout dropped below 60% in the 2001 election, so on September 7th the BBC announced that its most brilliant young news executive would review its output from concern that TV coverage of politics was turning viewers off.  Voting has climbed ever since, so either she fixed the problem, or what happened 4 days after the announcement helped to invigorate the genre.  But clearly more work is needed here: more voices, more investment, more investigations..

Losing three Is…

So TV news has changed.

But, interestingly, for all that, for many viewers, the fixed bulletin (the 1, 6, 10…) is how most get their news on TV. The BBC’s 6pm news managed 5 million viewers most nights in December while its news channel averaged only 3 million across 24-hours (and 8 million in a week).  So you wonder if, as Richard Sambrook’s been saying, the 24 hour channel, having created an addiction among viewers for news updates all day and night, has been superseded by the internet in a way that the evening bulletin has not.

The style of news bulletins and the speed of stories they cover has been transformed, but just as cinemas dropped Pathe news and stuck to they were best at, the news on TV has dropped some of its less important elements:

We don’t need TV news to infill, except on special occasions,

or to infiltrate.  That’s better handled by the net.

And the scope for involving the audience is a little thin on TV, unless you really like speak your brains vox pops.  Again, the net is the place for members of the public to get stuck in.

Inform, inspire, innovate, interpret and invigorate – these are quite hard enough as it is.  But it often succeeds and so for most people, the news on TV remains a collective act of civic duty, and