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Accomplishing news

Reader in the Sociology of Culture Loughborough University

Knut Helland (1995) Public Service and Commercial News: Contexts of Production, Genre Conventions and Textual Claims in Television, Bergen: University of Bergen, Department of Media Studies, Report Number 18.

The last ten years have seen a profound transformation in broadcasting throughout Europe. This process is far from finished, but the major shifts are now clear. Three stand out as central.

The first, and most obvious, is the sheer proliferation of channels as more and more cable and satellite services have come on stream and countries (such as Norway) that fought a long rearguard action against the introduction of terrestrial commercial channels, have finally dismantled their public service broadcasting monopolies and allowed new competitors into their national systems.

Many of the new channels are national only in the minimal sense that they can be recreated by particular national communities. All major satellite services operate across borders and an increasing number of other channels are controlled by ‘offshore’ interest. The era of national broadcasting, when nationally owned and operated organisation dominated the visual landscape, is passing. It is being replaced by the age of transnational imagery, with companies competing to trade across frontiers. This is the second major trend.

The third is commercialisation. Almost without exception the new channels are supported by advertising or audience subscription. This financial reality is not just a matter of political economy. It has major consequences for the television system’s underlying philosophy and rationale. In the new environment viewers are seen first and last as consumers, of prognoses and of the commodities that are advertised or sponsored around them. There is less and less space for the notion of broadcasting as a guarantor of the cultural rights of complex citizenship, offering access to the information, argument and interpretive frameworks people need to act competently and responsibly as members of moral and political communities.

Norway entered this emerging televisual environment relatively late. The public service system established by the Broadcasting Act of 1933, with NRK as the monopoly supplier of programming, had held for nearly half a century. It was finally breached in 1981, when permission was given to distribute foreign commercial channels over cable and satellite. One of the operators to take advantage of this new ‘window of opportunity’ was TV3, run by ScanSat, a subsidiary of the Swedish industrial and trading conglomerate, Kinnevik. The channel was launched on New Year’s Eve I987 and could be received in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. It aimed to offer advertisers ‘one-stop’ access to Scandinavian single market and set about building a mass popular audience with a mixture of entertainment programming and sports.

Although TV3 was a mixed entertainment channel, it did carry a nightly news bulletin. This drew on material provided by the major news services, most notably WTN and Visnews, repackaging it into a 20 minute broadcast entitled International News. Although it went out in prime time, the major rationale for the programme was strategic rather than economic. The channel would almost certainly have attracted a larger audience in that time slot with entertainment programming, but as an advertising supported channel entering a television system formed by public service principles, it needed to establish its legitimacy as well as it popularity. As the Head of News at TV3 told Helland in an interview, the company saw International News as a ‘loss leader’ ‘like a supermarket, because we need credibility. So we pay for it’. Offering a news service and limiting the number of advertisements carried per hour were seen as important ways of heading off negative comment from influential lobbies and establishing an image of respectability with governments and leading politicians. In addition, the fact that the programme was transmitted live, with a specially designed logo and title sequence, and was presented by an anchor person, helped the channel to establish its identity with the viewers.

News programmes, and in particular the flagship bulletin Dagsrevyen, lay at the heart of NRK’s sense of itself as a national public service broadcaster providing an indispensable base of strategic information and debate. However, as with all public broadcasting systems, there were permanent tensions between professional judgements and pressure from government and state. The ideal of journalistic independence was continually redefined and struggled over by both parties. Reporters had to fight continually to keep their distance from ‘official Norway’ and resist calls from the corridors of power to act as ‘the State Review’. Sometimes they failed. After the corporation’s change of status in 1988, from a state owned entity to a public trust, NRK got a greater degree of formal financial and administrative autonomy. But, as Helland documents, pressures from government and state remained part of the texture of everyday life in the newsroom.

Helland’s study covers the period 1989-1990, when TV3 was struggling to establish its viability and legitimacy in the Norwegian market, and NRK was renegotiating its ‘arm’s length’ relation to ‘official Norway’ and coming to terms with the emerging competitive environment. He was granted wide ranging access to the news production systems in both organisations, and seizes his opportunity with both hands, producing detailed ethnographies of both operations enlivened by vivid vignettes and well chosen quotations from interviews. He also offers a content analysis on the news bulletins produced by both production teams over a two week period at the beginning of 1990.

When the idea was first floated, comparing Dagsrevyen and International News must have appeared as an ideal point of entry into an analysis of the impact of commercialism on news. In a country where competition in television was a recent novelty, it was an offer that no researcher could refuse. Unfortunately, the built- in differences between the range and foci of the two bulletins made detailed quantitative contrasts more or less redundant. In the weeks chosen for analysis, International News carried only one item of Norwegian origin, whereas at Dagsrevyen domestic news accounted for almost two thirds (64,6 %) of all stories. The fact that the two programmes had very different agendas was not at all surprising. They were aimed at very different audiences (one national, the other transnational) and worked from very different resource bases.

Because he is not comparing like with like, Helland cannot address the bread and butter questions of comparative analysis in any detail: ‘Is commercial news less deferential to officialdom?’ ‘Is it more populist and entertainment oriented?’ Faced with this impasse he makes a virtue of necessity and shifts focus, moving from a search for differences to an investigation of underlying similarities. The results are, in many ways, far more fruitful and original. We already know from studies done elsewhere what the likely answers to the obvious questions will be. Helland’s exploration sets of to offer a different way of looking at news, one grounded in the analysis of form rather than content.

His starting point is the familiar notion of a genre as, in his words, a ‘dynamic set of conventions about ‘how to say things”. These define what makes news what it is and provide the basic yardsticks against which particular bulletins are measured, both by professionals and popular audiences. Following Anthony Giddens’ influential conception of structures as both enabling and constraining, Helland sees the conventions that constitute news as offering possibilities as well as setting limits. Or, in Ulf Hannerz’s resonant description of complex cultures, as ‘a moving interconnectedness’.

This departure point provides a novel way of approaching production. We now have a number of fine studies of the news as a labour process focused on news as work, on the way journalists go about their jobs, on their relations with sources, and on the social dynamics of the newsroom. This furnishes accounts of ‘making’ ‘putting together', ‘manufacturing’. The emphasis is on a process of fabrication which produces a particular view of the world. Helland is interested in this process, but he is more interested in how the practices of journalism combine to ‘bring off’ particular performances of generic conventions. From this perspective news appears as the daily accomplishment of a cultural form. It is a process of translating the raw materials of discourse and imagery into texts that can lay claim to being ‘really’ and ‘truly’ news.

Any single bulletin is a complex amalgam of continuities and contingencies. Helland is particularly good at unpicking the ways that the more stable elements in the genre frame the daily variations in content and ground the bulletin’s metaclaim to ‘be’ news. Both Dagsrevyen and International News had almost identical sequential structures which began with vignettes featuring a globe that transformed itself into the logo of the programme. Helland argues, persuasively I think, that these openings are designed as visual demonstrations of the news organisations’ claims to omniscience, authority and responsibility – that they are continually scanning the world for significant events and trends and that out of the avalanche of information and imagery they are confronted with every day, they are able to decide what is important and what is not. The impression of authority and responsibility is reinforced as the sequence moves from the logo to the presenter in the news studio. They give the appearance of being in control – of the news studio and the overall proceedings – while at the same time talking directly to the audience. They are quite literally ‘anchors’. Their professional neutrality (and by extension, the independence of the news organisation) is further confirmed by the studio set. Both organisations used cool colours, blues and greys. And, as for TV3, exposing some of the machinery of production – monitors, telephones, computers – also served to ground the news text’s claim to immediacy, to be up-to-the-minute.

Reinforcing this pivotal claim, together with the claim to authenticity, to be speaking a truth or providing a confirmation grounded in direct experience and observation, placed a premium on demonstrations of 'being there’. Consequently, as Helland points out, the most valued visual and verbal techniques in television news are live and recorded interviews and video news pictures with synchronised sound (’syncs’). In these areas, NRK, with its much greater journalistic resources had a distinct advantage, though as in all news organisations, what appeared on the screen did not always match the reality. As Helland shows, in several telling anecdotes on the reporting of the Gulf War, the newsroom and NRK’s journalists in the field quite often staged a ventriloquist’s act, whereby the correspondent on the ground gave the audience information supplied by the newsroom based on pictures they had received but the reporter hadn’t seen. On occasions, the material on the studio monitor carrying the CNN coverage of the war was relayed directly to the Dagsrevyen audience, with the news team providing comments. Again, this was designed to reinforce textual claims to immediacy.

These incidents were also a part of an incestuous, circular pattern whereby the major players in the global news systems, such as CNN, not only play a major role in setting the basic agenda of top stories, but also become actors in their own right. They become the central characters in a serial drama that they themselves had created. Helland does not follow this point up, but its implications for news’s claims to authority are well worth exploring.

This, in turn, raises a more general question about the limits of his study. His analysis of news as a genre that is accomplished through the routine practices of news production adds something genuinely novel to a well ploughed field in media studies, and opens up a range of enticing questions for further study. But oddly, he makes little or no attempt to show how it might be integrated with other recent approaches to news texts, such as the rapidly growing body of discourse analyses. A study of the discourse and modes of address employed by the two organisations would have been instructive. Did TV3 use more vernacular, less formal styles for example? How did the two organisations handle the competition of discourses relating to particular domains and events? One or two ideal typical case studies would have opened up these issues and provided a site for exploring their relation to the arguments advanced on generic conventions and textual claims. Similarly, more needs to be said about the notoriously slippery relationships between linguistic and visual conventions. Is television news a predominately visual genre, or is it, as others have argued, radio with pictures?

As with any study of a television environment still in the process of rapid change, Helland’s book already has the feel of a work of history (albeit contemporary history). But, because it offers us a snapshot, taken from the inside, of a television system in the first phase of coming to terms with a radically altered competitive environment it provides a valuable resource for future writers on this key moment of transition.

At the centre of this shift is a new, closer, relationship with the corporate world. Companies regularly transport journalists to staged events in the hope of trading hospitality for coverage and they increasingly offer news organisations pre-packaged video stories as part of their ‘communications management’ strategies. News presenters now appear in advertisements endorsing bonded goods and services, and may even use particular products on the screen, in return for a fee. Helland provides a number of examples of these kinds of arrangements and relations at work in Dagsrevyen.

Mapping these proliferating incursions of commercial speech into a broadcasting system that has been thought of as part of a public sphere, and tracing their consequences for the range and style of news coverage presents a major challenge for future research.

Commercial pressures are also helping to reorganise the ‘look’ of news through intensified competition between channels. In August 1990, just after Helland had completed his fieldwork, TV3 abandoned the twenty minute format of International News, which he had studied, and replaced it with three minute news inserts. Some of the existing staff were given notice, others resigned, and new newsreaders were recruited. They had no journalistic functions. They simply read out material sent by fax from newsrooms in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. But they had to look ‘good’. With this shift established styles of narrative and analysis gave way to the sound bite and the video clip and the authority of the anchor person was overlaid by glamour. Appearance eclipsed substance. The signs had been there for some time. As Helland’s investigations show, there was a standing demand for short items, an emphasis on human interest stories, a preference for material with a high visual content, and a suspicion of ‘talking heads’. But the new format was much more obviously designed to fit into the flow of entertainment programming.

As this instance demonstrates, in the new televisual environments, programme genres, including news, are subject to mutation and change, and an increasing number are hybrids splicing together elements previously parcelled out into separate, distinct, domains. Following the tracks of these alterations in forms of public representation is a major area for future work, but anyone embarking on it will find Helland’s work a necessary point of reference and departure. His genuine attempt to find another way of looking at the news, the wealth of illuminating empirical detail and incident he presents, and the openers with which he puzzles out his central argument, deserve a wide readership

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