Some media analysts, after examining economic and technological trends, develop reductionist explanations for change. Ignoring the spiritual in this way, as in others, is clearly a mistake. On the other hand, since God works through physical means as well as spiritual power, to ignore economics and technology returns us to the nature vs. grace division that sapped Christian energies during late medieval times. This chapter examines economics and technology, not to suggest that they are dominant, but to see how, over time, God "brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing" (Isaiah 40:23).
TELEVISION NETWORK NEWS
During the 1970s and early 1980s, news budgets of all three major networks shot upwards. The CBS news division grew from seven hundred employees in 1970 to fifteen hundred in 1983, even though requirements for technical staffing decreased due to the introduction of video equipment and simpler cameras/editing machines that took less time to use. ABC and NBC also found that some of their news shows, which had been loss leaders promoted for prestige purposes, were becoming profit centers. Yet, the words of Isaiah 40:24 describe well the brief glory of the news divisions: "No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff."
The new winds began to blow in 1983. In that year all three network news divisions cut staffs and budgets. The firings were real hardships, the reduction of allowable expenses a psychological blow for those who had become used to lordly treatment. At CBS, for example, first-class travel and catered meals for journalists were virtually eliminated. These troubles were seen as only temporary, but in subsequent years network news departments continued to stagger, with NBC losing $50 million a year on its news operation.
Losses of that kind would have been no problem during previous years of almost automatic profit increases for the networks. The three networks during the 1985-86 television season, though, had a combined 76 share (76 percent of households with televisions turned on had then turned to network shows) compared with an 87 share five years earlier. The financial impact of viewer decline became evident in 1985 when advertising revenues for all three networks decreased that year for the first time since 1971 (when a ban on cigarette advertising went into effect).
News division and general network problems were made worse by the growing sense that viewer drop-off would accelerate. Network viewership losses followed the advent of cable programming and a strengthening of independent stations. In 1987, half of American households still were without cable: What would happen as more viewers had more options?
Another long-term problem for the networks emerged in 1984 when Hubbard Broadcasting of St. Paul, Minnesota, organized Conus, a satellite news-gathering service. Conus lets local stations transmit and receive footage by direct satellite hookup, without going through the networks. By September 1985, when networks were asking for help from their local affiliates in covering a bad hurricane season, some of the local stations were saying they were too busy with their Conus feeds. In 1986 Conus signed an agreement with the Associated Press to form a television news service linking more than six hundred stations, and in 1987 local stations had even less need to rely on networks.
Local stations are allowed to develop their own linkages because of the nature of networks. CBS, NBC, and ABC each own only a few stations in major cities, while hundreds of others are "affiliates" of those companies but are owned and operated by others. For the most part the network corporations and their affiliates have had a friendly, symbiotic relationship, with years of tradition and profits behind them. Affiliates give the networks access to local airwaves; in return the networks pay the stations for use of their airtime and give them a core of popular programming around which to sell advertising. Yet, any station can refuse to use network programming at any time; as Elton Rule noted when he was president of the ABC broadcast division, "Station owners do pretty much what they want to do."
Given that opportunity for decentralization, change is coming through God's instruments of technology, economics and politics. With easy satellite hookups and film-sharing arrangements, local television stations do not have to rely upon networks to get national news to their viewers. Much as local newspapers have been able to fill their pages with a choice of material from various wire services and syndicates, so local producers are becoming their own national and international news editors, picking what they want for their broadcasts.
Network news economic problems center on advertising income. Most ad time on network news shows is sold by the networks, but ad time on local broadcasts belongs to local stations. Local news shows often have become cash cows, with higher ratings than the national news and far more local profit. There is little reason for local stations to give up a half-hour to the network when they can pick up inexpensive material from Conus or other feeds and reap profits by selling their own ads.
Another advantage of doing just that involves response to rumblings about the biases of network news shows. ABC reporter Sam Donaldson told one interviewer that he preferred Washington politics to the supposedly stifling thought of his El Paso background-but in El Paso, they are still in El Paso. Local station heads who did not like the network slant are now able to purchase material through independent satellite film transmission, edit as they see fit, and then have their own anchors narrate the material.
The transition from network to local control of national news will take several decades, but it already has begun. Surveys have found that 70 percent of network news viewers know about the major news stories before seeing the network news shows; they have heard about them on the local shows. Some stations are sending their own anchors to cover summit meetings or report on international crises. For example, Sacramento station KCRA recently sent its own anchors and correspondents to the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and other countries. Ratings of ambitious stations have zoomed; viewers apparently like to see hometown heroes strutting world stages and playing up local angles. The ratings lesson is percolating throughout the industry.
Network news shows will not die, but networks may function increasingly like newspaper wire services, feeding stations material to use or not use in their own productions as they see fit. Since the networks own some of the biggest stations, they will continue producing news shows if only to service themselves. During the 1990s, however, some local stations are likely to drop network news shows. KCRA's station manager Peter Langlois pointed out, "The public doesn't care where they get their news from. They care that it's accurate, complete and available when they want it. Ten years from now we could be providing a complete newscast covering the world from Sacramento."
Given competition from the local stations, network news is likely to head more towards features and mini-documentaries rather than breaking news stories. In 1986 ABC Vice President Av Westin predicted, "A few years from now you're going to see a format where the anchors simply genuflect to the major headlines for a few minutes, then go into two, maybe three longer, in-depth reports. That's their strength now." With network news shows losing money but interview and "magazine" shows such as "Nightline" and "60 Minutes" successful both economically and critically, networks are likely to move towards a magazine format, perhaps even a non-Christian version of "The 700 Club."
The underlying threat to all three networks (and, to some extent, their local affiliates) is the growth of cable, which by the end of 1986 was in more than forty-two million American households, or 48 percent of the total. That number was up 4 percent from the previous year. Penetration of some major cities was still low, though, and some older cable systems did not have room for many channels. Nevertheless, cable growth already has led to a greater variety of news options, particularly through CNN (Cable News Network), C-SPAN (Washington coverage), CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network) and specialized business and religious programming.
The advent of CNN in 1980 was the beginning of television news on a twenty-four hour per day basis. CNN now has over thirty-two million subscribers, but it was not an instant success when it began in 1980. It took time to alter viewing habits and to educate advertisers who had previously been paying attention only to network of local station programming. By mid-1985, though, the success of CNN and its headline news service, CNN-2, was attracting ample advertiser attention.
The reduction in network power is not automatically good news for Christians; local control over many newspapers did not preserve journalists from spiking the spiritual. The change does mean that the need to develop better local and cable news programs is great. CNN has shown that cable news can find an audience and even generate profits. CBN early in 1986 tried a half-hour evening news show but pulled back after two months; as cable penetration increases, though, other attempts will be made, and some will succeed.
Major network television up to now has had little toleration for presentations of real Christianity, not only for theological reasons but also because of economics: The cross is an offense to many, and the goal of network television has been to keep from losing viewers, rather than take chances in the hope of gaining some. The challenge of cable, though, means an end to lowest common-denominator programming. Talented Christians will have the opportunity to show on television the extent of Christ's Lordship on public-policy questions and in every aspect of life.
One potential roadblock to such vigorous presentation used to be the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Providentially, the advent of cable, along with a changed political climate, has led to a substantial decrease in FCC activity. Cable operators are correctly seen as different from broadcasters, and spectrum scarcity is no longer a problem: Ideologically independent stations and networks now have the opportunity to push hard for their own points of view, instead of going along with political fashion.
Even with the FCC largely inert, it will still take a while for the full impact of cable programming to be felt. Not until large cities finally are tied in (through cable or alternative technologies such as SMATV or MDS) and old systems are updated will satellite-distributed programming approach the uniform national coverage that has characterized commercial broadcast networks for three decades. Only then might a major news and information impact be seen, with Christian presuppositions underlying some news broadcasts. The diversity of cable programming will include-it already does include-much that follows Satan. But if Christians are active it will include, and already does, much that glorifies God.
Av Westin of ABC perhaps best summarized the present and future of network television news: "The whole definition of what a
story is, and the network's role in delivering that story, has been changed by the satellite. In the past, we have always referred to the evening news shows as our 'flagships.' Well, as many navies around the world have already discovered, the flagship may prove to be too expensive to maintain." When the flagships are mothballed, there will be enormous opportunities for Christians-if there is understanding of ways to win and keep an audience.
THE BEHEMOTH LOCAL NEWSPAPER
Since 1940, the United States has suffered through a steep decline in the number of cities having competitive daily newspapers. Some of the largest American cities now have only two daily newspapers, and many are down to one. Cities with a half-million population, such as Austin, Texas, typically have one daily newspaper; early in the century, with a population only one-tenth as large, Austin had six newspapers. There are fully competitive newspapers in only thirty American cities, representing just 2 percent of the total of about fifteen hundred cities with dailies.
Clearly, newspapers have not held their ground as other media have emerged. The number of newspapers sold per household per day decreased from 1.32 in 1930 (when radio began making inroads) to 0.79 in 1980. In the twenty largest U.S. cities, newspaper circulation fell by 21 percent between 1970 and 1980. And yet, the daily local newspaper business has been, and remains, very profitable; in general, newspaper companies in recent years have done better financially than most other companies. Newspaper revenues grew 64 percent between 1979 and 1984, and pretax operating income margins increased from 16 to 18 percent. A typical newspaper without daily print competition in its community can convert a third of its revenue to operating profit.
The statistics should suggest profitable opportunity for Christians, and others, to jump in with competing newspapers. There is a big catch, though. Usually, when competition is low and profits are high, new competitors are quick to enter a market. But that has not been the case with city daily newspapers, for one main reason: The advertising pattern.
Newspaper advertising typically produces 80 percent of newspaper revenue. The amount of advertising dollars spent on newspapers quadrupled from six million in 1970 to twenty-four million in 1984. Inflation accounted for easily half of that, but the real increase was still very healthy. Most advertising is local retail, and what those local retailers want is penetration of over 50 percent of the local market. Total circulation may be less important than density of penetration in a particular area, for when a newspaper reaches over half the households in an area, it often becomes a must buy for local advertisers. Advertising managers have a motto: "When you get 51 percent of the circulation, you get 70 percent of the advertising."
As the 51-70 rule of thumb would indicate, in recent decades newspaper circulation leaders within their communities have tended to become fatter with ads. Their competitors have tended to lose advertising inches and revenues. Generally after a struggle, those competitors have gone out of business. The result has been daily newspaper monopoly in most American cities.
Those wishing to break the monopoly have had to face a Catch-22. Advertising revenues allow the existing newspaper to publish a fat edition for, typically, 25 cents. New newspapers cannot get the advertising until they have established themselves by grabbing a big chunk of the market. Yet, unless they have large enough cash resources to cover tremendous losses for several years, they cannot sell "full-service newspapers" (complete with columns, special features, and so on) at a competitive price and gain the necessary circulation, until they have the advertising subsidy.
The peculiar economics of entry explain why there has not been a new, major city newspaper developed for many years, with the exception of the Washington Times (published with millions of Unification Church dollars). And yet, success has created weaknesses for behemoth city dailies. To get maximum penetration they have had to provide a little for everyone, but in so doing they often have cut down on detailed local news coverage. By providing a little for everyone they have produced customers but not supporters, readers who subscribe as long as there is no alternative. In many cases they are ripe for the plucking, if a real alternative could be provided.
The efficiency of daily newspaper distribution also is questionable. Large city newspapers, with their multiple specialized sections, have developed the cafeteria line approach to journalism: Pick what you want, don't pick the rest. But the comparison has a catch to it: Cafeteria customers do not get a tray with everything on it and then throw 90 percent of their food into the trash can. But most of the typical metropolitan newspaper (72 pages by day and 265 pages-three pounds-on Sunday) is thrown away without being read. Trees are cut down in the forest, gasoline is used to get newspaper trucks across town during rush hours, and most of the effort is a waste as far as news-gathering is concerned. A typical 50,000-circulation daily newspaper spends only about one-eighth of its budget on news-gathering and editing; about three times as much goes for paper and printing.
Advertising revenues allow for payment of production and circulation costs with profits left over. If newspaper advertising were reduced, mainline newspapers would be in serious trouble. Media analysts such as John McManus note that newspaper advertising probably already has passed its peak. In a paper entitled "The Media Environment of the '90s: A Period of Danger for Newspaper Journalism," McManus noted that many retailers are learning that advertising does not have to appear between news columns to be read by consumers; other means, particularly electronic ones, are likely to come on very strong. Mass-market newspapers will face a loss of revenue, and will either have to raise prices (with resultant decreases in circulation and advertising rates) or find some other way to avoid hard times.
One of the newspaper industry's main competitors, direct mail, already has proven that it can target marketing groups demographically, or reach all households in a geographic market, far more efficiently than can newspapers. An equivalent electronic attack is coming soon. Telephone circuits could bring shopping and other information directly to desktop terminals. Electronic classified advertising, or electronic yellow pages with prices updated continually, could cut substantially into newspaper revenues.
Eventually, use of personal computers in homes will lead to a more efficient delivery system for news and features also. Newspaper material will be sent over wires to individual homes. There many subscribers will print out automatically those sections they want. Others will look at material on screen, store on a disk what is useful to them, and print out only crossword puzzles that they will enjoy figuring out or articles that they wish to post on bulletin boards.
Publishers already have tried a few "videotext" experiments, with entire newspapers put on television and viewers allowed to call up the pages they want. But such approaches have been slow going so far, partly because of expense and the lack of mass computerization. Technology, after all, is not adopted by most people for its own sake: the technology must fulfill a need. For instance, the Bell System's "Picture Phone" did not catch on, perhaps because there was no demand, perhaps because of cost. Technological feasibility and economic viability are two different things. Videotext cannot compete with newspapers at present when the newspapers, with advertising subsidy, still only cost a quarter.
Over time, due to production and transport costs, newspapers will have to get more expensive. As computers become as common in homes as televisions now are, advertisers will explore those possibilities for direct consumer contact. Behemoth daily newspapers have become highly dependent on advertising, and if advertisers should find another way to cover the market so cheaply, current news monopolies will be broken.
Development of computerized daily newspapers will be immensely beneficial to Christians, because the market will be wide open again to new approaches. But it took seventy years for the telephone to reach 50 percent of American households, and it might take that long until computer communication becomes an everyday household event. In the meantime, computers will provide Christians with opportunity in another way, through the development of what is called "desktop publishing."
CHRISTIAN OPPORTUNITIES: PUBLISHING
Charging head-on against behemoth newspapers is hard; outflanking them is becoming easy. It is certainly feasible for Christians of modest means to establish weekly or monthly newspapers capable of covering major stories in ways that point out inaccuracies and biases of the big media outlets, and take into account the spiritual as well as the material. Such publications can be produced by a very small staff with the aid of a computer package-computer, laser printer, and programs-costing under $5,000. Layout by computer replaces time-consuming and costly paste-up of articles and artwork to produce camera-ready copy.
A recent dollars-and-cents analysis of what it would take to start a Christian newspaper in one city of three hundred thousand displays the opportunities. Using desktop publishing methods, monthly production and editorial costs for a 10,000-circulation, thirty-two page monthly newspaper were estimated at $10,500 (that figure includes payment for freelance writers and editors, printing, postage, circulation help, office expenses, and promotional material). The first-year circulation target of ten thousand was projected to include five thousand subscriptions at $10 each and three thousand sales in Christian bookstores at $1.25 per issue (bookstores keeping 50 cents).
Projected revenue from advertising then was filtered in, with rates below those of magazines but similar to those of newspaper supplements and shoppers with equivalent impact. Total revenue for sixteen pages of ads, based on delivery of 10,000-circulation, was projected at $7,450 per month. Adding that to $7,500 from subscription revenue and $2,250 from single copy sales led to projected monthly revenue of $17,200. Given anticipated expenses of $10,500 per month, a profit potential of $6,700 per month was claimed.
Given the amount of wine that tends to be spilled from cup to lip, especially in circulation and advertising estimates, such a projection may be optomistic-but not wildly so, if a publication with something to say can be produced, and Christians respond. Repeatedly in many cities, Christian newspapers or magazines have been begun, only to be discontinued swiftly. Although editors may complain about lack of support from the Christian community in some instances publications have been so poorly written and designed that they produced scorn rather than glory for God, and deserved to die. The hard part is producing a quality product that can keep and hold an audience. If that is done, with God's grace advertising and circulation will follow.
The long-term goal for such Christian publications will be to develop deep roots by building a solid staff and community support. When mass computerization opens up new opportunities by making the three-pound newspaper package extinct, the Christian publication will be well-positioned to challenge non-Christian media services.
A short-range alternative for Christians whom God has blessed financially involves purchase of an existing newspaper that could, over time, be staffed with talented Christians capable of gradually accustoming their readers to think of the spiritual as well as the material. Individual businessmen, or small partnerships, could take such initiative in smaller cities. Although it sometimes is said that individual enterprises do not have much of a chance in the face of newspaper chains, the largest chain, Gannett, even with its publication of USA Today, still has only about 8 percent of nationwide circulation. That is a lot, but in 1935 William Randolph Hearst alone controlled 14 percent of daily circulation and 24 percent of Sunday circulation. Most chains are small, and owned by small businessmen; they are often very profitable. A Christian with money can do well by doing good.
Research into current trends in media economics and technology leads to optimism for Christians. Anyone who is feeling pessimistic about media opportunities should compare the current problems in journalism to those facing Christians in education. Powerful groups with anti-Christian worldviews dominate major media and major educational institutions. In both fields it is often difficult to develop financially sound alternatives. But the contest to reclaim education is much harder than the parallel battle in media, for the schooling contest is rigged. Those pressing for educational alternatives have to produce an expensive product so far superior that it can pull away educational consumers from what appears to be a free lunch, the state-funded schools and colleges. Christians have seen that state largesse often can lead to isolation and practical disenfranchisement of theological minorities.
Providentially, the public television system is of only minor importance in this country, and we do not have a system of public newspapers as we have one of public schools. God has given Christians the opportunity to engage in fair competition. The number of media outlets indicates the vastness of opportunity: About 1250 television stations, over ten thousand radio stations, 1700 daily newspapers, 7700 weekly newspapers, at least twelve thousand magazines, and newsletters as many as the sand on the seashore.
Those numbers are growing in most categories. From 1975 to 1985, there was an increase of two hundred television stations, 1600 radio stations, two thousand magazines, and one hundred weekly newspapers; only the number of daily newspapers decreased, down fifty. Almost all of these new outlets are free of state control or policy dictation from a state religion. These opportunities, though, are just that: Opportunities. Christians will not succeed on cable, on radio, in magazines and newsletters by offering readers or viewers more of the same. Offering more of the same, slightly cleaned up, accomplishes little.
At times during the 1980s, a defeatist moan has come out of some parts of Christendom: "An elitist group of secular humanists has seized monopolistic control of the networks and major newspapers. They are brainwashing the majority of decent Americans. We can't fight them." Over three thousand years ago, after Moses had sent twelve men to explore the land of Canaan, the majority came back with a similar whine: "We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are.... All the people we saw there are of great size. We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes" (Numbers 13:31-33).
Because of that lack of trust, the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. If Christians today spend time complaining instead of doing, Americans may spend more decades wandering in a media wasteland. Media pessimism is not only wrong in principle and tragic in practice, but unnecessary, for three reasons. First, the deck is not necessarily stacked against Christians in media, as it is in education. Second, technological change is opening up new possibilities for wider competition. Third, and most important, God is in control: With His blessing, mountains can be moved.
Providentially, Americans have an unusual media system. In other countries, governments often own the television and radio stations. Even when they do not own the printing presses, governments frequently offer newspapers and magazines considerable economic support. The American tradition is different. Newspapers and magazines operate almost entirely without governmental support. Except for the relatively unimportant Public Broadcasting System, American television and radio stations also operate without government funds. Limited FCC regulation is becoming less significant year by year.
As cable television takes charge, as diversity and decentralization among local television stations develops, as opportunities to chip away at behemoth newspapers emerge, as low-cost newsletters grow in importance, the question will be whether Christians can produce programs and publications that Americans choose to watch and read. Those who shirk from the task of doing something special, convinced that there are indestructible giants in the land, are not glorifying God. We need the Joshuas and Calebs. We need journalists trained to see that there are ways to gain and keep an audience. The next chapter will deal with one of those ways.
|PART THREE QUOTE
|Whenever we see ourselves as weak, we should not concentrate on our own frailty, but should gaze-both eyes-up God's glory.|