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The evolution of European television news
News production in European television has changed considerably over recent years. In essence, the origin of these transformations is to be found in the process of deregulation which took different forms in each country, and which ultimately meant the disappearance of state monopolies and the implementation of a mixed system with both public and private channels. Despite the notable differences in the audiovisual policies pursued by individual European Union countries, it has been suggested that a “European model” of television exists, at least in contrast to the “US model”. This is because television was first launched in Europe with a vocation to public service which shaped its subsequent development, unlike the North American model of an industry moved by private interests and governed by market forces.
In this context, news bulletins have traditionally been regarded as an indispensable part of the way in which European broadcasters perform their characteristic function as a public service. However, the nature of this public service has been distorted over time. The appearance on the scene of independent television companies, the opportunity to receive international channels via cable or satellite, and the strengthening of regional and local television channels have increased the amount of news available. Other factors, such as the digitalization of journalistic production and the proliferation of online audiovisual news, also highlight the competitive environment. Although globalization could be a significant factor when a serious international crisis occurs, the daily cycle of news programmes, for both professionals and audiences, is affected more by national competition. As Jerome Bourdon has argued, “competition might have been the driving force behind the evolution of news, not technological change or globalization” (2001, page 337).
News occupies a large proportion of European television schedules. According to Eurodata TV Worldwide (2008), news programmes account for 22% of peak viewing, behind the genres of fiction (36%) and entertainment (29%). Therefore, the news is a distinctive genre of TV programming because, in addition to their potential influence and their effect on the channel’s market share, they also shape the channel’s public image.
When the role of television in European countries is examined, the quality of news broadcasts is also subjected to scrutiny. The debate on the functions and financing of public television in a competitive television market naturally affects the essence of news services, as has been demonstrated in the case of Germany (Meier, 2003), Sweden (Djerf-Pierre, 2000) or Norway (Syverstsen, 2003). In democratic societies, television journalism has at least a double function: it must provide adequate information for citizens to make their decisions freely, and it must face up to the need to compete in an increasingly fragmented media market. For this to be possible, a balance must be struck between public service and commercial interests in news production. Audiovisual journalism has therefore had to adapt to the chameleon-like and fragmentary media environment which is increasingly dominated by genre-mixing and the use of spectacular material.
Comparison between news programmes on European television channels is complex because of a number of factors, such as geographical spread and linguistic diversity, the heterogeneous nature of national markets, the different systems for funding public channels, and the political and cultural circumstances which condition news production in each country. The scarcity of comparative studies indicates how difficult it is to analyze news contents over the whole of the European Union. Some studies on the television coverage of recurring themes, such as information about European institutions, provide fragmentary data, but it is not possible to extrapolate from these results to other countries. For example, the analysis of political and cultural issues broadcast on audience-leading public and private channels in eight countries showed that the images of the European Union which appear on television are profoundly influenced by national debates (Kevin, 2003).
One of the most wide-ranging research projects, covering the news programmes of 17 channels in eight EU countries, concludes that there is a great similarity between the different programmes as far as the formal aspects are concerned (Heinderyckx: 1993). According to this author, in the early 1990s the news on private channels hardly differed from that on the public channels, apart from a faster pace in the way the different news items were presented and lower coverage of international news. Competition thus meant that the choice and handling of subjects was fairly similar in public and private channels. Harrison (2000) also considers that the contents of news bulletins on general television channels is becoming increasingly homogeneous and recurrent, as a result of the need to adjust to the minimum common denominator capable of attracting the greatest possible number of viewers.
The definition of news has varied tremendously, according to historical period, medium and particular circumstances. In television newsrooms, the decisions on what is regarded as news are guided by given news values. The heads of news departments make their decisions on the basis of criteria such as importance, interest, number of people affected, geographical proximity or quality of image. But journalists are not immune from the conditioning factors which the medium itself imposes. In this sense, the professional criteria on what is regarded as news are undergoing significant changes. In practice, other factors that have nothing to do with journalism partly condition whether or not a piece of news is included in the programme – such as what audio visual format the news material is available on and how much time it is available to include the news item. For example, political coverage tends to focus on “moments and events”, instead of issues and proposals (Delli Carpini and Williams, 2001). “Soundbite journalism” is often practiced, media events staged before the camera are given the status of news items, and the most striking image is sought as a way of creating interest. On the one hand, the need for urgency and immediacy in the case of news leads to its becoming increasingly trivial (Langer, 1998). On the other hand, a trend is gathering momentum for news such as crime or sensational events to be given priority over other issues which may be important or inconvenient for political and economic stakeholders.
It would be extremely useful to have a detailed analysis of the way the degree of sensationalism has increased in television coverage over a long period of time. In 2001, Winston analyzed the news programmes of five British television channels in order to compare their development with the results obtained by the Glasgow Media Group (1976). In 1975 this group had carried out a study of the contents and presentation techniques of the news broadcast on the three television networks that existed at that time in Britain. In 2001 Winston’s analysis revealed that although the news programmes now contained more news items, because they were now longer, they showed significant tendencies towards sensationalism. On the one hand, the time devoted to international news had fallen by 25-30% over this period. Moreover, in 2001 many news items about international affairs were placed at the end of the broadcast and had a human interest focus. A reduction in the time spent on political news was also noted: in 1975, over twice the amount of time was taken up by national politics. Similarly, an increased emphasis on crime and human interest stories was detected.
José A. García Avilés
Universidad Miguel Hernández de Elche
Further reading:
Bourdon, J. (2001) “A History of European Television News: From Television to Journalism, and Back?”, in Renckstorf, K. et al. (eds.) Television News Research: Recent European Approaches and Findings, Communications Monograph, pp. 323-344, Quintessence Books, Berlin.
Delli Carpini, M. & Williams, B. (2001) “Let us entertain you: Politics in the new media environment”, in Bennet, L y Entman (Eds.) Mediated Politics: Communication in the future of democracy, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 160-191.
Djerf-pierre, M. (2000), “Squaring the Circle: public service and commercial news on Swedish television 1956–99”, Journalism Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, pp. 239-260.
Meier, H. E. (2003) “Beyond Convergence. Understanding Programming Strategies of Public Broadcasters in Competitive Environments”, European Journal of Communication, Vol. 18, n. 3, pp. 337-365.
Glasgow Media Group (1976) Bad News, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Harrison, J. (2000) Terrestrial TV news in Britain. The culture of production, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Heinderyckx, F. (1993) “Television News Programmes in Western Europe: A Comparative Study”, European Journal of Communication, Vol. 8, pp. 425-450.
Kevin, D. (2003) Europe in the Media. A Comparison of Reporting, Representation and Rhetoric in National Media Systems in Europe, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, London.
Langer, J. (1998), Tabloid Television: popular journalism and the ‘other news’, London: Routledge.
Syverstsen, T. (2003) “Challenges to Public Television in the Era of Convergence and Commercialization”, Television and New Media, 4, (2), 155-175.
Winston, B. (2002) “Towards Tabloidization? Glasgow revisited, 1975-2001”, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, n. 1, pp. 5-20.