How we clicked quality journalism off our TV screens

The remote control made life easier for couch potatoes and changed TV news. Credit: 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.

Technology cannot be blamed for all this — certainly not the remote control. It was also the Reagan Era and the death of the Fairness Doctrine, which helped keep some sense of balance to advocacy on television. Deregulation of broadcast meant the end of public-service requirements, which supported commentary and local public-affairs programs. And then there was the cable revolution.

In the new era we have greater quantity of new programming and wider choices for viewers but there is precious little attention given to content that doesn’t glitter or titillate and no attention at all to subjects requiring more than a couple minutes of air time. There are very few local equivalents of the PBS NewsHour and documentaries on local topics are rarely produced. In a world where news quantity is just a click away, we are too distracted for quality.

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