Tuesday, August 7, 2007

When News Becomes Infotainment

I have my own spin on the transition of the television news from "hard news" to "infotainment." What we call “news,” which originated in the print era, is converted to something different by the electronic media. As I noted in my paper, "The Savage Mind on Madison Avenue", it is necessary to consider the structure of all television content in order to understand what print news becomes on TV.

Using Claude Levi-Strauss's structural anthropology triad as a framework for understanding the structure of all television content, I wrote:

"...news broadcasts fall somewhere in between shows and ads in terms of entertainment value vs. propaganda, while shows and ads may have little or nothing to do with the objective world, dividing their productions in terms of their intention to entertain or propagandize. (This is not to say that no show ever has propagandistic intentions, or that no advertising executive ever wishes to entertain. But in general, each is more concerned with the demands of his own domain. Program producers must attract an audience, and advertisers must sell their products.) It could be stated that if the hidden structure of advertising has to do with an opposition between culture and nature, then within the other legs of the triad there are other hidden structures that determine how the particular material is developed and conveyed. If it could be stated that advertisements, by opposing culture against nature, deal with social versus antisocial behavior on a personal level, then I would tentatively suggest that the shows on television are chiefly concerned with social versus antisocial behavior on an interpersonal level, while the news deals with this same general opposition at the public level. Further research is necessary in order to determine the exact parameters of these oppositions."
When I wrote this paper in 1980 it was clear that there was an accepted distinction between the appropriate "realms" of television: fiction, news and advertising. What we have witnessed over the last 25 years is a blurring of boundaries. Fictional programming is now "based on true events"; news content is now presented using the tools and conceits of storytelling; and advertising has now morphed into product placement within a television entertainment show. Regarding product placement, products currently are placed only in fictional settings. How long before advertisers realize that placement in entertainment programming may not have the immediacy of placement within a news broadcast?

Neil Postman might have suggested that this blurring of boundaries, which was appropriated from the print media, was inevitable given the non-discursive biases of electronic media. The boundaries between shows, ads and news, which we are accustomed to take for granted, are shown to be arbitrary and merely differing iterations of the overall structural themes.

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