Wires and lights in a box

It’s been 50 years since Edward R. Murrow’s famous speech challenging television news to live up to its potential. At the 1958 Radio-Television News Directors Association, the best known, most respected broadcast journalist of his time warned that without a determination to use television to “teach… illuminate…[and] inspire…it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

This week, leaders in the broadcast news industry gathered in suburban Chicago to discuss Murrow’s legacy and the future of electronic news. I had the privilege of serving as facilitator for much of the conference, which used Murrow’s speech as a jumping off point to explore the pressures on journalists and news organizations today.

“Murrow was fed up with prime time TV,” said former CBS News vice president Bill Small. “It was crap and it hasn’t changed in 50 years.” While there is more public affairs programming in prime time today, most of it is “entertainment posing as news,” said Tom Bettag, executive producer for Ted Koppel’s documentary series on Discovery. Need proof? While we were meeting, CBS’s 48 Hours focused on “a wacky love triangle gone wrong.”

So where do we go from here? The group examined everything from the content to the business model for local TV news and came up with a long list of options for the future. But if they agreed on one thing, I think it was this: “If we don’t change, we’ll be dead.”

UPDATE (June 6): One of the participants, AR&D’s Terry Heaton, has just posted his observations here.

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