Five months ago, I left Circa and joined AJ+. As I mentioned at the time, one of my interests was in TV news; more precisely, what TV news is when released from the constraints of television.

I’m not the first to point out that TV news sucks. Like Jeff Jarvis, I don’t want to dwell on it. Instead, I want to write a series of posts to explore what can change — and how — about our understanding of TV news. But to figure out how we move forward, I will need to analyze (but hopefully not dwell on) what elements of TV news don’t translate to the Web.

The sitcom moment that doesn’t translate

Ever watch an old TV show online? I don’t mean “Modern Family” on Hulu. I mean an OLD TV show. Last year, in order to up my nerd game, I watched all seven seasons of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I’m not proud. But I also wasn’t tired (“Star Trek: Voyager” was pretty good, too).

The traditional TV show was beautifully crafted for its medium. Watching it outside that medium (the TV set) allows you to appreciate the craftsmanship, perhaps the way an archeologist appreciates ancient artisan bowls. It gives you meaningful insight into how the world worked at the time — but you sure as hell wouldn’t eat out of those ancient bowls now.

You can always tell where a commercial break once existed

If you watch an off-network show on Netflix, the script comes to a momentary emotional pause or small cliffhanger. Then, seemingly for no reason, an establishing shot is made (the Starship Enterprise circling a planet) and the “captain’s log” voice-over begins, reminding you what happened only seconds ago. Indeed, I’m convinced the captain’s log was invented by Star Trek writers as an aid to deal with the return after a commercial break.

In the world of TV, this made sense. The viewer had to watch commercials and be brought back into the story. In the world of online shows, this moment is artificial. It breaks the fourth wall. It sounds like a fake laugh track. What served a purpose then and fit the visual/story vocabulary needs of TV watchers doesn’t translate to the Web. With shows like “Orange is the New Black,” “House of Cards” or “Marco Polo,” the concept is taken even further — the breaks between episodes hardly exist. One can finish an episode and the next episode will pick up almost exactly where the last one left off. Enter the Netflix binge.

In TV news, the commercial break has been used as the teasing moment to the point of ridicule: “Stay tuned after the break when we play this segment about how there is a common household product that will kill you in your sleep.”

Nobody respects this. It’s a cheap trick but also one of the most successful — hence why it is so common. I’m not convinced this trick will work online. And that’s a good thing.

Why won’t it work? As Variety Senior TV Editor Brian Steinberg wrote in December, “Replenishing this crowd with younger viewers becomes tough when millennials and the generation behind them seem more comfortable with streaming video that does not require a subscription to a satellite or cable distributor.”

What moments like the commercial break currently exist in TV news?

Freed from the constraints of time and commercials, how should a programmed video news organization meet a customer’s needs? “Programmed” is a key element here. It’s the part of TV that I think should be preserved.

In a world where television is digital, the product isn’t “broadcast” news, but it’s still programmed. That’s the difference between Justin TV (reality TV born of the Web) and nonfiction storytelling (news): It’s the programming, stupid.

But the tropes of storytelling that broadcasters are so familiar with — the stand up, the walkie-talkie shot and the b-roll of people walking — don’t translate to the Web. All of these are very familiar. But they are anachronistic. The proof is in the satire.

TV journalists: You don’t work for a TV or broadcast news organization, you work for a video news organization. You always have. TV has just been the conduit. And a limited one at that.

TV is the No. 1 source of news in the United States. So the question arises — what changes and what doesn’t about how we understand TV news? What opportunities present themselves when we restructure “broadcast” programming for the Web?

Up next: Video without sound.

David Cohn  
Residential fellow


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