The Guardian; UK

9th Dec 1996

The way we present television news hasn't changed in 30 years, says Stephen Marshall, director of the Canadian Channel Zero. Now a media revolution is under way and TV stations must rise to the challenge to begin with,

Why do so many young people watch MTV and not the news? Take a look. Don't get mad at it. Of course it's banal and vapid. So the challenge is to say, 'Okay, fine. Well we have the content. How do we merge these together?'

RIGHT NOW, we live in an era when we are facing a paradigm shift in television. Arthur Schlesinger, the American historian, talks about 30-year cycles of history. Understanding these 30-year cycles is very important. The present paradigm in broadcast television is one that peaked in the eighties and I believe it has reached its nadir.

It's anchor driven. During the Vietnam war, probably the time when television had its biggest impact on the public (at least in the sense of public reaction to what was shown), anchors were very important. The whole culture of television news was framed around these people. But to my generation - and I'm sorry to say this - a full screen shot of Tom Brokaw, or any other news anchor, doesn't mean anything. We don't know who they are; we don't trust them.

We look on them as fillers between Ford commercials. And that's something that is going to challenge the TV news establishment: it has to decide whether television is going to move with the new media or not. This is an exciting time for television, but it also presents a challenge for those who want to capture my generation. At the moment Camel cigarettes is doing more to woo us by creating new action-packs than television news is doing.

But television news is the key. It facilitates our global village and if we're going to sustain an intellectual generation who are learning from television and going out and then discussing what they learn from it, you must to, first, design it: change the design that you've developed and used for the past 30 years; and secondly, you must understand the news culture which has been developed through the internet.

THE INTERNET has created a new opportunity for information. People want more. It's investigative by virtue of its process. I can go on the internet and if I want to find out something, I can do it on my own. For example, take the recent spate of stories about the TWA 800 crash involving Pierre Salinger. Well, television was three months late. CNN broke that as though it were a hot topic, but it was discussed on the net months ago.

There's a lag-time between broadcast and the internet which has to be confronted. One of the most popular sites on the internet is the McLibel trial. It's never talked about on television, probably because McDonald's is a major advertiser in the US. I understand that TV has to deal with that situation. But when there's a trial going on about McDonald's and it raises questions about the rainforests, these are issues which a lot of young people are interested in. Not just in America and Europe; I've talked to people around the world in the past six months - from Sydney, Hong Kong, Kenya - and these are key areas of interest. Young people have this desire to know - we want to know more than we are being given by the existing model of network news.

It is not a radical departure for news stations to begin using television screens as a palette. You have to think about redesigning the very palette of television and facilitating a far greater experience. It needs to be more stimulating. At the moment broadcast news descends to meet the lowest common denominator. It talks about certain things that happen in this world but there isn't sufficient explanation.

At Channel Zero - a Canadian video news channel - we're being asked by networks to help redesign their palette - to help create a different television design. We take the product of television and say, 'Okay, well we don't really care about Tom Brokaw. I mean I know he's good looking and he gets paid a lot of money, but ..." He can go up and be a corner of the screen. You could have a map of Zaire with troop movement, and text, which tells the history of Zaire and what's been happening there for 10 years. All at the same time. And you know what? People can handle it.

What would be the best thing to happen for news broadcasters? People might begin taping your shows and watching them later, like the soaps. People want more information than they are being given and that is what the internet is showing us.

In this new design spectrum, the channels that are going to win market share are those which radically change the way they design and format their broadcasts. News has to change drastically, or you're not going to have our generation watching. We'll be watching Seinfeld. It's a very cynical group you're dealing with. You can't just be information providers, you can't be mere installations in the mediascape. You have to be far more developed. People like to do more than one thing at once. They like to read, watch and listen. They don't have to catch everything.

Television is probably the least developed of all media. At Channel Zero we are attempting to create a new form of television news. It is free of advertising and we sell throughout the world at Tower Records, HMV, Virgin: we sell it all over. Six months ago it was like a guerrilla group of arty journalists; now it's financed with $2m. We get approached by companies (including network TV) keen for advice on how best to develop a different style of news. If you are going to adapt and be a part of this paradigm shift, you have to attract audiences. And that will only happen through facilitating a greater amount of information by moving away from anchor driven broadcast to design driven broadcast.

Skills are shifting; there is a revolution going on in the mediascape. But it is not the end of television, it is the beginning. The method of presenting information is vital. It is not getting through to us - not just in America - my counterparts in South Africa, China and elsewhere all have the same feelings. They We are aware of the role that companies have played in the destruction of our planet; if they also happen to be major advertisers on your networks then there has to be a way of tackling these issues, not ignoring them. When we were kids we were told not to back off; we're not going to.

Why do so many young people watch MTV and not the news? Well, because they would rather watch that style of picture and design. Take a look at that. Don't get mad at it. Of course it's banal and vapid. So the challenge is to say "Okay, fine. Well we have the content. How do we merge these together? How do we integrate a moving news broadcast which has text and maps and other devices?"

For instance, when CNN covered the storming of the Russian parliament in 1994 they just showed hour after hour of artillery fire. It can do much more than that. I mean go for it. Multimedia. You should bolt from your television broadcast and say, "I want to go on the net, I want to find out what that was all about". Television news is not reflecting that culture at all.

The channels that are going to survive are the ones that challenge the viewers. Some news is like airplane food. Again, why is MTV everywhere? I won't answer it for you. Figure it out. It's not style over substance.I'm saying I want even more substance. Challenge us about what's happening in East Timor. Talk about it. Otherwise the revolution may not be televised.

Stephen Marshall was speaking at the Newsworld conference in Berlin.

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