The Dramaturgy of Television News

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Television news is a performance. Many people may disagree with this viewpoint, mostly due to the implication that a performance is somehow false or fictional. Whether or not TV news is factual does not alter it being inherently performative: there are sets, lights, makeup and directors; there are performers in the form of news anchors, and all the trimmings of a performance. As with all performance, there must also then be dramaturgy in the presentation of TV news. Whether it’s intentional or not, whether it’s vested in one staff position or spread across the entire production staff, there is dramaturgical work in every TV news show and story. Look at entertainment or infotainment news; look at Good Morning America and Today.

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I am neither disputing nor reaffirming the factual content of these programs, though the veracity of their content it is a worthy subject being discussed effectively elsewhere. What I have noticed, and what I am discussing, is our unwillingness to observe and evaluate the heavy-handed dramaturgical signals that TV news hurls at us. TV news has become a very contentious subject in our country. While attempting to maintain a facade of objective journalism, most TV news programs, and sometimes entire TV channels (guess?), are clearly pursuing their own agenda. At the very least they’re aligning their coverage with what their viewers want or think they want to see.

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On a certain level this makes perfect sense: if a TV news program covers what its viewers want in the way they want it, they will watch the program more and ultimately earn more revenue for the network. Only giving viewers what they want in the way they want it, however, is fundamentally at odds with objective journalism; it shifts these programs from platforms whose objective is to inform to platform whose objective is to entertain. Now, if we understand that that’s what this is, that’s fine; I’m all for it. I watch Today nearly every morning, enthralled by Carson Daly’s ageless face and Al Roker’s gaffes. But I understand this is not “news.” Today has news “segments,” to be sure, but the show’s dramaturgy clearly defines it as popular entertainment.

Last Friday’s episode of Today provides a wonderful example. A Walmart-sponsored segment focuses on people and organizations “giving back” this holiday season:

To be sure, this is a heartwarming segment that will do a lot of good.

But also last Friday, Walmart protesters, demanding better pay, were arrested in L.A. That bit of news was excluded from Today. Was this specifically and directly because Today owes something to Walmart, or because Today‘s producers didn’t find it a compelling news item? In the dramaturgy of TV news, it was more because that story did not fit the narrative that Today was co-creating and airing. The segment’s dramaturgy required Walmart to be unblemished.

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One of the most powerful aspects of dramaturgical practice is that it lays bare the intent of any given production. Through examining each component and the overall pattern of a play, dramaturgical analysis reveals the end goal that the production builds to. This can even be different from, and in conflict with, the stated intent of a production. You can say that the intent of The Phantom of the Opera is to showcase the dark depths of human shame and the heights of human kindness all you like, but that doesn’t make it true. The intent of Phantom (and nearly every other big-budget Broadway musical) is to use spectacle and compelling drama to make people buy a ticket. Every artistic and business choice involved eventually leads back to this intent.

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In this same way, we can examine TV news to reveal its intent as theatrical production. TV news has one intent, the same as nearly every other TV program: to get people to watch it. More precisely, and to repeat, this is to achieve the high ratings that generate the advertising sales that finance the program. Once we accept this intent, the practices and tactics of TV news begin to follow logical patterns and to obey rational thought. The main criticism of American journalism remains it’s lack of objectivity, its unwillingness to admit this deficiency and its tendency to focus on the sensational over the factual. I agree with most of these criticisms: look at the Fareed Zakaria plagiarism scandal; look at Fox News’ abysmal record on accuracy. At the same time, the problem is not that TV news is inherently bad or that TV newscasters are inherently bad journalists. It’s that the intent of TV news inherently necessitates its qualities.

It’s a matter of nuance. While the intent of TV news is not to report factual, informative, useful information, news reports must be true enough to be plausible. By examining discrete components of TV news programs, we can clearly see it informing nearly every aspect of the whole organism. Opening sequences are always exciting, with flashy graphics, perhaps a shot or short video of anchors reporting, a show of equipment. The graphics and action shots show that the program will entertain, yet the equipment, along with the talking and gesturing journalists, show that the program has a “serious” commitment to accuracy.

This BBC News title sequence is a great example:

Of course, no examination of TV news would be complete without mentioning The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. These two comedy programs have caused a huge upset in the news world. Not surprising, considering that host Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is the most trusted source for news in the U.S. How did a comedian become a more sought-after news source than, say, MSNBC? Stewart and Colbert intimately understand the dramaturgy of TV news, and, in fact, lampoon it in their programs. Compare the opening of the BBC News with The Colbert Report below:

Again: flashy graphics, “action reporting,” even words in the background such as “strong,” “honorable,” “all-beef.” Yet these symbols are clearly meant to lampoon the performative tactics used in traditional TV news. Together, these shows are a master class in the dramaturgy of TV news. Every segment, every interview takes the tactics in TV news that are meant to convey objectivity, accuracy and useful synthesis and flips them on their head. Unflinchingly, they examine the shortcomings in news coverage. Yet somehow they also never lose sight of the fact that they’re a comedy show. The clip below covering the unprecedented cut in food assistance programs is a wonderful example:

It’s hilarious, informative, objective in actual coverage because it’s not crafting an aesthetic of objectivity. They don’t need to worry about appearing believable, and this gives them a dramaturgical edge. What these programs most clearly demonstrate is that accuracy and good reporting are not an aesthetic. Even if a news show looks believable, sounds accurate and feels objective, that doesn’t mean it is.

My intent in writing this piece was not to blast broadcast journalism, or to reveal some sinister conspiracy. Instead, I hope that we as viewers can understand the TV news we watch a little better and in turn make better decisions on how we should receive it. Broadcast news is a great way to wake up. It’s wonderfully entertaining, and if you want to get a broad idea of what is going on in the world, it’s a pretty good bet. Major actions, such as war, peace deals, the results of elections (the 2000 Presidential excepted), are in general reported accurately. What we need to examine with the dramaturgical intent of news in mind are segments with deeper analysis, the coverage given to certain stories, and more nuanced events with social or political implications. If we can understand our news better, perhaps we can make better decisions based on it.