How we clicked quality journalism off our TV screens

It took a long time, and a lot of help from dumb-it-down consultants, but a 1950s invention played a big role in removing the most serious journalism from local television.
The remote control made life easier for couch potatoes and changed TV news.

The remote control made life easier for couch potatoes and changed TV news. Sarah Baker/Flickr

Broadcast pioneers have noted the May 20 death of Eugene Polley, often credited as co-inventor of television’s remote-control device, one of the least-recognized forces in changing the face of television. Polley died in Chicago at age 96, following by five years the death of his collaborator, Robert Adler.

The remote simply changed the way we watched television — the couch potato no doubt existed before it came along, but the remote certainly made his life easier.

It also changed the way we did the news. In my view at least, it was not a change for the better. Its effects got me out of the business a quarter-century ago and I was one of the last holdouts of a style of local TV news that no longer exists.

Polley came up with his early wireless remote in the 1950s, but it really came into its own about 30 years later, as the devices became easier to use, smaller, and less costly. By 1980, every one had a remote, and in the industry we were feeling the impact. I joined KGW-TV, King Broadcasting’s Portland affiliate, in 1970 after a dozen years with Oregon newspapers. My job title was news analyst, a position pioneered in the 1950s by Tom McCall, who went on to become Oregon’s most-popular governor. McCall was succeeded by Forest Amsden and Norm Heffron, both of whom later came to KING-TV in Seattle. I spent 17 years as news analyst, setting a company record that will never be broken, for the position no longer exists.

KING, meanwhile, went through three news analysts during my time: Charlie Royer, Bob Simmons, and Jim Compton. All of them, like me, also did documentaries or special reports. It was simply the best journalism gig in town in the 1970s and 1980s. The remote was one of several changes in the business that chased analysis and commentary off the air. 

Prior to the remote, station loyalty played a huge role in local television; on the evening news our ratings depended as much on the lead-in programming as on our own performance. When Oprah Winfrey arrived on the ABC affiliate in Portland, programmed just before the news, their news ratings took off and ratings dropped at NBC-affiliate KGW, although we continued to set the news standards for Portland television.

I sometimes joked that I had a great viewership, “stuck between weather and sports,” so that people would stick with me even if they disliked my observations on the day’s politics. But, with the remote, commentary was easily muted with a click or turned off entirely as the viewer surfed to another channel.

Other forces were at work to change the content of local television news. On a personal note, I left KGW in 1987 largely because I knew that Ancil Payne was about to retire as King president the following year. Ancil always “had my back” on commentary, defending me from those who were offended or outraged; I had little faith that successors would be as supportive (four years later, the company was sold).

News consultants also played a role in this; they flew into town with pre-cast ideas on how to increase ratings. Almost always it was to emulate what worked in some distant market, one they had advised; design a new set, invest in flashy graphics, and get a bouncy new anchor and some attention-getting gimmick for the weather. And get rid of those sober-sided news commentators. At KING-TV as long as Ancil was in charge, the latter suggestion was off the table.

Local television got good at covering one type of story: the disaster event, a plane crash, volcanic eruption or flood. Cameras were no longer seen at a critical legislative debate, a news conference by an important political leader or challenger, or any meeting at which no protesters appeared. With this as the news menu, people who did analysis or commentary were out of synch; you couldn’t do meaningful commentary if the subject hadn’t been covered in a news story.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, May 25, 7 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the beginning of happy-sappy nooz shows in Seattle can be traced to Jim Harriot's tenure at KOMO. He began practices like making Herschel the Sea Lion the lead story, having co-anchors complete each others' sentences, and addressing the audience as the collective "you" (ie, "Traffic deaths are down this year because you died 35 fewer times behind the wheel"). KING still had the best, or least-worst, newscast after Payne retired, but when the Bullitt sisters sold out (in more than one sense of the term) KING quickly joined the rest in the nooz gutter. That's when I quit watching local news altogether.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, May 25, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

I've always been some kind of news junkie, probably dating back to seeing my dad reading the newspaper thoroughly every day, and his Newsweek magazine. When I moved to Seattle KING-TV was clearly the one to watch, under the leadership of Mrs. Bullitt and Ancil Payne. Thanks for documenting the changes that lead me away from local TV news. Every once in a while I'll tune in for a few minutes, maybe to catch the baseball highlights of the day, and to catch a laugh or two at the days fluff video of highway wrecks, building fires -- and the live feeds from the site of where something happened yesterday.

I believe if the local news actually gave us some news worth watching agaub, viewers would begin ignoring that channel change button.

Posted Fri, May 25, 7:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe. Currently it's been the replacement of journalism degrees with Communications degrees. They can read the news but have no idea what the story is about. Sarah Palin clones are everywhere on the news.

chapala21

Posted Mon, May 28, 6:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Yep.

Posted Fri, May 25, 9:04 a.m. Inappropriate

You're barking up the wrong tree on this one. It's not the remote control or the consumer that defunded TV news. It's the corporate consolidation of the media starting in the 1980s, combined with the 24 hour news cycle pioneered by CNN, that shifted TV news away from journalists and toward "news analysts."

Trevor

Posted Fri, May 25, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Trevor is correct about the influence of corporate consolidations and cable news; in particular the advent of Fox News with its heavy partisan slant was a game-changer. The reference to “news analyst,” which was the title King Broadcasting carried for commentators such as myself, Royer, Simmons and Compton in Seattle and (originally) Tom McCall in Oregon was once a term of respect. All of us had paid our dues as reporters (Compton at the network level) and were solid journalists. What we see today is commentary by former politicians, celebrities and the like, who never reported a story in their life yet parade in the guise of journalists (read Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, etc). The entire industry is debased. Sorry to use only examples from the Right; attempts from the Left to emulate have largely failed to gain traction.

Posted Fri, May 25, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Floyd. As a print news guy in the Portland market, we paid particular attention to TV news (and KEX radio news) to see,and hear how much of our copy wound up being read back to us from the AP newswire. Your commentary was much appreciated then. Today, we mostly watch PBS and anguish over attempts in Congress to cut its funding.

Kurt Engelstad

kinupiaq

Posted Fri, May 25, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

It was the same in Chicago where I worked in TV news and documentaries from 1982 to 1985 at the three network-owned stations. The newspapers actually looked to the TV news shows to get story leads. Almost unthinkable today. At WMAQ, NBC in Chicago, we had a number of special units, for consumer, health, investigative, etc., each with their own dedicated reporters, producers, and researchers. The other stations had the same. Wow, it was a great time and there was a lot of excellent local broadcast journalism (and commentary) then. But then GE bought NBC and we started seeing the cost cutting. Ouch, painful. I'm not convinced it was consumer-driven. When the quality declined, the viewers left.

Posted Fri, May 25, 11:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, so-called national cable news channels have debased real news coverage. They are a vehicle for partisan primal screaming---not only at Fox, which you properly name, but also at MSNBC, which is equally
demagogic and irresponsible from the other side of the spectrum.

These channels are what they are for the same reason that local TV
channels began to run quickly downhill a few years earlier. This was due to the consultants you mention who changed local-news broadcasts
from a mix of real news (including analysis) and human-interest stories to a mix of crime-and-disaster, health tips, weather, sports, and traffic. You'd never know, watching local channels, that serious debate was taking place on issues involving a region's economy and overall well being.

You see the same formula applied on ABC, CBS, and NBC national evening news shows. Maybe the first five minutes are dedicated to international or national stories--if involving violence or disaster, so much the better---and the rest to the weather, health, and softer feature stories which are thought to appeal to target demographic audiences. This has all taken place at the same time as print journalism is dying.

You can still find serious coverage of serious matters in some print and online places and, most of the time, on PBS Evening News. But you have to be looking for it. It no longer flows naturally to a mass audience. Yes, the invention of the clicker no doubt contributed mightily to this. But I wonder if we would not have gotten there
anyway, if a bit slower.

Posted Mon, May 28, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Everything has been debased in the last 25 to 30 years. It's time for an elevation of standards.

Posted Fri, May 25, 12:43 p.m. Inappropriate

I tend to be skeptical of arguments of technological determinism. The way that people make decisions, and the assumptions and values that go into those decisions, go far beyond the availability of a single gadget. Perhaps the reverse is true, that remote controls became popular long after their invention because the attention span of television viewers has declined.

If modern television is for the lazy, then I am too lazy even for that. Old televisions were simple: you turned the channel knob and fiddled with the antenna until you got tolerable reception. Nowadays there are dozens of remotes, each equipped with hundreds of buttons arranged in a bewildering array. One day I wanted to work in the club room of my building, and I figured that I might as well turn the television off since no one else was around. I couldn't even figure out how to do that. Is it worth the trouble to figure this out in the vain hope that there will be something worth watching? I don't think so.

But anyway, remote controls hardly explain the poor quality of news because poor quality news existed long before remotes, or televisions themselves. Today's media landscape more resembles that of the 19th century than the 20th; how can one avoid the impression of being back in the era of William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalism, or party-controlled newspapers? Perhaps it is what came between, the style of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite that most cries out for explanation.

Posted Fri, May 25, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

The remote control device would be expected to silence the commercials, right? you seem to imply that the remote control was (is) used to delete the news? well maybe, but the gradual diminishment of the expensive TV news programs could also be attributed to other things, including a disillusionment with the grand news "analyst" (like you) but also the bigs; Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, Rather, etc.
The stars told us what to think and, in many cases, they were right but I do have to wonder if we really were better informed then. I think you have to have more evidence than just the reduction in news budgets and an absence of "analysts".

kieth

Posted Sat, May 26, 10:59 a.m. Inappropriate

Makes me sad that a reputable journalist would use the occasion of someone's death as a platform to vent their own misery. I agree that journalism has definitely been sliding down the other side of the bell curve for the past 30 years, but to blame it on the remote control is ridiculous.

For those of you who want to blame Fox (and I am not a Fox fan) the KatieCouricization of journalism began well before Fox arrived on the scene in 1996.

Posted Mon, May 28, 5:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Crosscut isn't exempt from this, just refer to any article on protecting Puget Sound and you get a press release not an investigative report.

salmonjim

Posted Mon, May 28, 11:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree fully with the first commenter that we really lost big when the Bullitts sold KING. And what did their noble act in turning the money over to an environmental foundation actually buy? Instead of saving the planet, it looks more and more to have simply spawned a vast bureaucracy of people more dedicated to keeping paychecks coming in than to saving anything. Money can't buy love and it isn't doing much of a job saving the world.

Posted Mon, May 28, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

News on TV is difficult to watch in the first place. Vapid speakers with fluffy hair, and make-up layered on so thick, it makes me wonder why their faces don't erupt in violent pimples.

Listening to them chatter in bird-like, chirpy happy voices hurts my ears.

Turning the TV off has been the best answer.

Posted Mon, May 28, 7:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I've been involved in housing and homeless issues in Seattle since the 70's. I'll leave it to others to sort out why this has happened, but I can vouch for the fact that these and other local issues issues simply do not receive the kind of local news attention they once did. When we held press conferences, sponsored public events, staged demonstrations, met with public officials, or issued press releases about growing homelessnes, the loss of low-income housing, discrimination, and efforts to improve the situation, these issues were regularly covered by radio, TV, and newspaper reporters. In those days -- the 70's and 80's -- we were able to develop relationships with several local reporters who covered city issues over the long term, including regular appearances on local talk shows. That is simply no longer the case. Local news has been cut to the point that the public has little awareness of the ways in which our city is changing for the worse in its ability or willingess to welcome people of all incomes, abilities, and diverse backgrounds. The deterioration of local news has clearly led to a deterioation of the public's need to know about critical local issues.

David B

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