Unless you’re a TV history buff, you may not know that until the mid 1970’s Philadelphia’s favorite television news was KYW’s “Eyewitness News”. At that time, KYW was an NBC affiliate, the flagship station for Westinghouse Broadcasting, and consistently number one in the market.
As only TV historians may remember, Westinghouse Broadcasting at that time also syndicated “The Mike Douglas Show”, “The Merv Griffin Show”, and “David Frost”, all of which were ratings leaders across the country.
Ah, the good ol’ days…when TV News focused on news, when opinions were the milieu of talk shows, and never the twain would meet.
The “Eyewitness News” format was virtually unrivaled across the country until 1971, when another Philadelphia TV station, WPVI introduced “Action News”, a format of shorter stories, but more of them, delivered at a faster pace and requiring less viewer attention.
The key to “Action News” was embodied in it’s core editorial approach and slogan: “If it bleeds, it leads”. In other words, any story involving blood (a car pile-up, a shooting, a major fire, etc…) led the broadcast. Other, less violent stories, no matter how important, fell into line behind the blood.
Within a few years, “Action News” turned “”EyeWitness News” into an also-ran.
The “Action News” format spread across the country and was so successful, the station’s owner, Capital Cities, eventually bought the entire ABC network. KYW never regained its ratings lead. In fact, it frequently ranked below UHF stations, the equivalent of the Phillies being beaten by a minor league club.
I don’t know if WPVI had consulted psychiatrists in developing the original format, but it turns out that “If it Bleeds, It Leads” stories are great for triggering the adrenal glands, the “fight or flight” reactions of people. That, in turn, makes them feel compelled to follow the stories and stick with the stations.
In today’s lingo, that means more “clicks and eyeballs”.
This triggering of “fight or flight” reactions has spread across the media. On ABC’s evening news, David Muir sits at a desk, both hands gripping the edge, elbows raised, as if ready to leap up at any moment. He speaks in an urgent tone and in half-sentences, as if there isn’t time for full sentences.
ABC leads in the evening news ratings.
As you might imagine, the other networks- not to mention all media, from newspapers to Facebook- are copying ABC. That is one reason Americans have a perception that crime is increasing, that big cities are full of danger, that families are no longer as safe as they were.
(In fact, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, most crime is down when comparing the 90’s to the 2010’s, even though it is up in some parts of the country this year. )
Which is why Republicans latched onto crime as their raison-de-vote. While Democrats moan and groan about the demise of Roe v Wade, Republicans have turned every news show into a free megaphone for their anti-crime meme. It’s a nuclear weapon against a pea shooter.
Cynical? Yes. But clever, as in genius-like clever? Oh-absolutely- for sure-definitely-you bet…yeah!
Which is smarter: claiming crime is out of control and leveraging that message 24X7 into every newscast, newspaper, twitter and Facebook posting, etc…, or running a few 30 second ads touting “Woman’s Choice” in some of those newscasts?
Who are you going to believe: your local newscaster or a political ad?