Breaking news! Local information stations want attention, and they will make every effort to get it - usually by being as loud and garish as possible. Why all the bold type and startling headlines? Broadcast networks rely on advertising income to stay afloat. The companies running those ads are going to give their money most readily to the networks that get the most viewers to tune in and see their thirty-second spots. With all the local news stations reporting the same information, how can they compete for those sponsor dollars without merely parroting each other? The networks must make their stories more interesting than their rivals' offerings. They must also use emotionally charged imagery and language in order to keep a viewers’ attention firmly on their channel and not the one next door.
The basic business plan of any local news station is to attract the most lucrative commercial sponsors possible since the ads those sponsors buy are the source of a majority of a stations’ revenue. Many local stations are owned by recognized companies like NBC but most are owned by businesses that are merely aligned with those larger networks (Shumway). This means that despite the fact that your local news says it’s the city’s NBC station it may not be benefiting from that super-network’s revenue dollars. Instead a station may be on its own as far as drumming up funds to keep their anchors in hairspray and makeup.
The stations may need the advertisers, but the advertisers aren’t big on spending their money unless they can be certain they’ll see a return on their investment. In recent years the cost of running a prime-time commercial has dropped, but it will still cost a company well over $100,000 to televise an ad during prime-time news (Mandese). The sponsors must assure themselves they’re going with the station that will get their spot aired most affectively. That means choosing a network whose viewer numbers are highest.
So how do the networks get those high ratings and attract large-dollar sponsors? They get viewers to watch their channel and not the one a remote-click away. It’s no easy feat. Chances are that it’s going to be snowing now matter whose weather report is seen. The President’s speech is going to sound the same whether it’s on NBC or Fox. It’s up to the stations to be sure they are successful in keeping viewers interested in how they report on those stories if they want to keep their advertisers as repeat customers. While loyalty no doubt plays a part in viewership, even the most loyal NBC supporter is going to look elsewhere if the argument is strong enough to do so.
Stations can stay frontrunners in viewer numbers by having more compellingly told stories than rival networks. According to media blogger Geoff Meeker, whether the news is of sports, business, politics, or even the “good news” story of the day, inevitably conflict is the heart of the tale. The conflict might be between two people, or people and the world around them, or even people and their own lives. Any story the news reports is a battle presented for viewers to cheer or lament (Meeker). It follows then that keeping good journalists on hand to write compelling stories is a smart option for any station trying to stay ahead, but stations also have a psychological tool for use in keeping viewers glued to the screen.
A study published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media found that “arousal elicited by emotion” actually causes us to remember more effectively than by just telling us what’s happening (Lang, Potter, and Grabe). The use of emotionally evocative language and imagery is a way to catch the eyes and ears of viewers, and keep them tuning in long after the initial headline is presented. Words like “showdown” or “crisis” may not really fit the event in question, however the use of them might make a viewer remember the story and tune in for updates later on. Using bright bold-typed and shocking visual headers to accompany an important story will garner attention, but it will also convince a viewer to seek out information about that graphic image if they haven’t been listening. Phrases like “breaking news,” “stay tuned,” and “coming up” might seem straightforward enough, but in fact they are subtle cues to viewers that they’ll be missing out on important information if they start channel surfing after the weather report. In addition to the broadcast stories themselves, news channels use convincing words like “leader” and “exclusive” in advertisements for their stations in their quest to convince a potential viewer that their station is superior to another.
Despite the increased presence of multiple online news sources most Americans are still watching television to get their daily news (“Internet Gains”). For the foreseeable future, viewers will continue to tune in over breakfast, or after dinner, or just before bed. Though the race for the top of the heap in local news media might seem like a tempest in a teacup it’s a small price to pay to ensure that there are multiple lines of communication staying open. The News At Five can be forgiven for coming up with words like “snowpocalypse” as long as they’re giving similarly loud attention to reports about important news like local and national politics. The competition is important as well because although one news channel could get the information out as effectively as multiple stations, if there was only a single source its accuracy would be in question. That being said, it’s equally important that news stations keep the parable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf in mind. Too much high-emotion reporting may find viewers ignoring important information by equating a real crisis with a slightly overblown one.