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 "Finnish Views of CNN Television News" by Brett Dellinger
"Because of the structures of the various discourses within this broadcast genre, structures which were imposed by the pressures of its encompassing commercial objectives and design, it has an inherent inability to communicate information in the same way as the written word."

"CNN's format is a proven competitive broadcasting commodity while other formats, and discourse styles, are not competitive and will have more difficulty attracting audience attention in a predominantly commercial environment."

"Cueing ... as an artificial contrivance becomes a complex phenomenon, one which, after time, can develop into a formalized and familiar cultural experience whose frame becomes ritualized."

"The American public got what many critics and "conspiracy theorists" did not entirely expect: Instead of the "jackboot" and fascist-style propaganda, American television viewers got an endless stream of entertainment..."

"Stuart Hall ... sees the operation of the media within western capitalist societies as "all inclusive." The media shape our tastes and our desires--as well as our expectations. There is 'a shaping of the whole ideological environment ... a way of representing the order of things ... with ... natural or divine inevitability ....'" 

To Finns, it seems, American television news is read "with a gleeful smile and interspersed with laughter, punctuated by frowning--as if ... emotions were totally disconnected from the text.  American audiences ... expect "happy talk" and banter during a news broadcast. Finns, on the other hand, associate such behavior with clowns..."

This chapter also appeared in Mediapolis: Aspects of Texts, Hypertexts und Multimedial Communication under the title: "Concision in American Commercial Broadcasts." 

For more information: See Sam Inkinen, the editor, in Research in Text Theory Untersuchungen zur Texttheorie, a series edited by János Petöfi.

Chapter 7: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

Television News Frames
continued from previous page

"Instantly recognizable 'concepts' with a presold market"

Although framing is essential to television news production, it has the effect of producing "symbolic content messages" which communicate meanings to audiences. Frames, as coded messages, are also "rhetorical gestures" which are consciously or unconsciously considered newsworthy by television news producers and their audiences. Frames also, because of their technical nature, can be repeated and used for different stories, especially those frames which strike the right chord and successfully fulfill their designed promotional purpose.

As has been illustrated, there are many reasons for framing the news and ideological reasons are certainly not the most important. There are purely commercial reasons, as well as technical reasons. Newspaper articles, for example, are usually written in such a way that the reader can browse at will from story to story. An article in The New York Times is written in the form of a pyramid, with the main thesis at the beginning, which is then developed into a more complex form by the end of the story. In the United States newspapers either monopolize their markets entirely, or they speak to small, specialized audiences-people who represent specific markets for targeted advertising. In the newspaper business, direct competition with other newspapers within one market area is rare. American commercial television, on the other hand, incorporates into its news broadcasts certain frames which are formulas designed exclusively for the needs of commercial television. Television, as a communications, information-giving medium, is not as mature as newspaper journalism, and its present state of development is where the press was in the days of Citizen Kane, when there was still competition between newspapers in the biggest markets. The big American networks, as well as their affiliated local stations, are competing against each other, not to mention the newer cable networks and cable stations which subdivide the market into even smaller segments. The consequence is that each news broadcast is actually delivering to its sponsors smaller and smaller audience fragments of the total television-viewing population. The solution to this aggregate drop in market share is to devise frames which are better able to compete. Competitive frames have more action, more entertainment, more one-on-one intimacy, more news in the public interest for the purpose of attracting more viewers.

Commercial television, therefore, is forced to devise frameworks for story-telling which will successfully deliver a qualitative audience in sufficient numbers to the sponsor's commercial-television must "carry the audience along." For these reasons, as Gitlin has so accurately pointed out, the news story takes the form of a circle. The thesis is developed throughout the story, but the reporter always returns to do the "wrap up" at the end.

In commercial television news broadcasting, especially in the United States, competition is the driving force behind the structuring of news frameworks. If one commercial news program or network devises a commercially or politically successful frame for a story, competitors are obliged to pick up the frame and continue with the story. To reinterpret an existing frame would be running the risk of contradicting media-established "truth," while frames tend to filter back to re-establish and re-define reality.

A good example of a commercially successful frame is the story of Tonya Harding, the Olympic ice skating champion who allegedly conspired to attack her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Never mind that no concrete evidence of her guilt was found before the frame was devised. Still, CBS had a commercial interest in playing up the story because, as was admitted afterwards by television executives, the frame of an evil ice skater attacking her good rival attracted audiences to the upcoming Olympic games, which, co-incidentally, were being covered exclusively by CBS. Advertisers, naturally, "rejoiced" at the unexpectedly large audiences which were attracted by the spectacle. Competitors, such as CNN and NBC, not wishing to kill their advertisers' goose that laid the golden egg, continued to develop the frame. As the Tonya Harding frame appreciated in value, in the same way any other commodity would acquire value after advertising, CBS could then consider raising its price for advertising space during the upcoming summer Olympic games.

There is a wide diversity of possible television news frames which can be devised by television news, which David Altheide calls "instantly recognizable 'concepts' with a presold market."

What's less obvious is the genre's habit, exacerbated by haste, of reducing a complex story to the simplest, most viewer-friendly terms...Still, get ready for a lot more. In high-visibility disasters like Waco, the networks see a way to survival: instantly recognizable "concepts" with a presold market...We've reached the point," says ABC's Parkin, "where TV movies and news shows are competing for the very same stories."

The journalist, working for commercial broadcast media, must have the goal of presenting the television story in such a way that audiences can be created, then held long enough for sponsors to proclaim the advantages of their products. With this necessity in mind, one can more easily grasp the reasons for a story structure which is segmented in such a way that audiences are "teased" along to the next commercial break by means of journalistic devices deliberately aimed at building up anticipation by means of hyperbole, epideictic language, attractive images and sounds.

Hyperbole, which is often found in commercials, brings us to another dissimilarity between the news as it is presented in newspapers and that which appears in commercial television news broadcasts. This dissimilarity concerns the rhetorical arguments as they are presented to audiences. Primeau, in his analysis of American television's rhetorical style, reveals persuasion as a specific rhetorical, but very subtle tool for influencing audiences. He compares the rhetoric of American television with the classical rhetorical category of persuasion, known as the "epideictic," which reveals itself most vividly in the use of ceremony. As opposed to other forms of persuasion, such as that used in a court of law, for example, in which the evidence and a logical argument are submitted for judgment according to the rules of logic, epideictic persuasion, according to Primeau, seeks to convince through the use of various types of ceremony, or exaggerated praise or blame. Repetition and the repetition of formulas abounds in epideictic persuasive techniques, as do spectacle, display and ritual. Examples of all of these characteristics of epideictic persuasion are represented in most American commercial broadcasts, including news. Epideictic persuasion is recognizable, very predictable, and can be easily accepted by audiences as an implicit element of commercial television. Furthermore, precisely because it is accepted and taken for granted as a "normal" part of television broadcasting, especially in the United States, it is often ignored by both audiences and critics alike.

Primeau has also observed that epideictic persuasion is used in such a way that logical arguments are discarded by broadcasters. In their stead, spectacle, repetition and ritual have become the rule. Gitlin offers an excellent example of spectacle in American television, where repetition and ritual in commercial news employ populist frames which consistently pit "the wisdom of the people" and the "little guy" against big government or crime or foreign enemies.


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Chapter 8: [Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]

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Copyright © 1999 by Brett Dellinger. All rights reserved.

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