Lizard-Brain TV

Martin Kaplan is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, which studies the effects of entertainment on society.

A lot of local television news is lousy. Who cares?

Not many of us, apparently.

Polls show that most Americans get most of their information about politics and public affairs not from newspapers or from network TV or cable, talk radio or the Internet, family or friends, but from local television news. Americans like local news, according to surveys regularly touted by the National Assn. of Broadcasters -- it’s one of the most profitable slices of the entertainment industry, pulling in billions from advertisers eager to connect with all those avid viewers. And decades of evidence about the toxic effects of media have had no apparent effect on what gets broadcast.

Local news may scare people about the mean world beyond their doors, but there is a reason why “if it bleeds, it leads.” People can’t take their eyes off violence. Fear is a magnet for our attention. It was true when we were hunter-gatherers. It was true when St. Augustine couldn’t resist the thrill of gladiators’ mayhem. Every time we rubberneck at a car wreck, we prove it true again.


Sex, celebrity, novelty and melodrama are similarly mesmerizing. Our lizard brains can’t help it. And as long as station owners have every incentive to seduce us and no incentive to educate us -- or to figure out how to make public affairs programming as irresistible as carnage or cat fashion shows -- we can expect to be fed this diet, no matter what its consequences to our psychology or our society.

Local news is broadcast over public airwaves. When stations apply for their free licenses, they promise to fulfill public interest obligations in return. Some station managers may see a responsibility to strike a balance between producing profit and generating useful reportage, rather like a public utility. But their programming choices suggest that they believe that people don’t need to know much about local public affairs. For instance, on Monday, KCBS-TV Channel 2 sponsored a mayoral debate but decided not to air it live, instead broadcasting “Entertainment Tonight’s” post-Oscar coverage.

It’s too soon to say how much insight into Los Angeles’ mayoral candidates local TV news has provided during this campaign, but the 2004 election season may offer a hint. As in 2002 and 2000, thousands of candidates for city halls, school boards, county and regional offices, state legislatures, law enforcement posts and judgeships were invisible on local news nationwide. Even candidates for governor, and for the U.S. Senate and House, had a hard time getting airtime on the news. As a result, many races mainly existed as television ads or direct mail campaigns. But it was an extreme rarity for local news to scrutinize those ads.

There are station managers and news directors who have broken from the pack and who deserve the awards and ratings they get for figuring out how to make important information entertaining. But on the evidence of what they air, many local television executives apparently think that audiences are content with what they get and that naive public interest advocates simply don’t understand that local news is really a cash cow for a large, often very large, corporation.

When market forces don’t provide something that the public needs, it’s the job of government to make sure it’s available. This is especially true when what’s needed is owned by the public in the first place, as with wilderness and wetlands. In the case of the electromagnetic spectrum, there have been laws since the Hoover administration conditioning the use of that spectrum on the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

The government consistently enforced these laws until the 1980s, when, as part of the Reagan administration’s deregulatory juggernaut, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark Fowler declared that television is “a toaster with pictures,” an appliance like any other. The market would take care of things; the public interest should be defined as what the public is interested in. The rise of cable television added the argument of abundance: With consumers having so many choices, the old rules from an era of broadcasting scarcity no longer applied. If people wanted public affairs, they could find it somewhere.

And so the FCC’s “ascertainment” guidelines, requiring television stations to ask their communities what public affairs programming they wanted, were repealed, as were rules requiring detailed logs of what the stations aired. Today, renewing a TV station’s license is a matter of filling out a postcard every eight years.

It’s possible that people don’t express dissatisfaction with the coverage of local public affairs because, getting so little of the good stuff, they haven’t had a chance to develop an appetite for it. It’s also possible that the market already meets the demand, that the relatively few people who want thoughtful local coverage will find it on cable access, public television or radio or in the newspaper.


So the real question isn’t “Who cares?” but “Should we care?”

The nation doesn’t seem ready quite yet to turn the future of the environment entirely over to the marketplace. Nor, despite its failure to live up to our hopes, do we think the public school system should give up on teaching everyone to be good citizens. Yet, in a way, caring about the quality of local news is more important than our concerns about education because while democracy depends on the caliber of our public school system, what happens to those schools, along with other democratic institutions, depends on what people learn from local news.

It could be that we really are happy to see the electromagnetic spectrum strip-mined for all it’s worth and to see voters -- in Tuesday’s mayoral election, for instance -- divide themselves into the few who know much because they watch public affairs programming and read newspapers, and the many who think they know far more than they actually do because they watch local news.

But if our country has actually had that debate, I don’t recall hearing about it.


Maybe that’s because it wasn’t on TV.