Breakfast TV: more variety, less choice

Advocates of de-regulated markets argue that increased competition will bring about greater consumer choice as companies compete more fiercely with each other to maximise market share or exploit revenues from niche sectors. In fact, unfettered markets frequently produce the reverse - less choice but more variety of the same thing. A good example is American breakfast television.

Flicking through the channels on my hotel television on a recent business trip to the US, it was noticible how each of the major networks had adopted virtually identical breakfast formats. Not much had changed from 5 years ago when I spent considerably more time in the US.

Breakfast programming is designed for goldfish, i.e. a short cycle of the same content endlessly repeated. This is a consequence of the short, interupted viewing for early morning television, with in most cases the television simply 'being-on' in the background as viewers prepare to leave for work.

Typically in the US, editorial programming consists of just a couple of lead stories or features repeated every 10-15 minutes. These typically tend to be: freak weather conditions (with never any reference to global warming); local gun shootings or robberies, and personality based coverage of elected politicians or candidates. Last week, it was the case of a mid-term election candidate that was allegedly seen at a party held at the Playboy Mansion. Often it is a politician's own paid-for advertisement that is used as the basis for a news story.

These short news bulletins are intersperced with traffic reports (pictures from traffic cameras on the main commuter routes) and endless weather forecasts. On one channel, the forecaster gave details of the predicted tempearatures and wind speeds for different parts of Manhatten. Not surprisingly, each forecast was virtually identical.

Programnming 'sameness' even extends to the presenter line up, usually consisting of four people standing behind a desk in an open plan studio, playing off each other with (scripted) banter as the screen fades into a commercial break. A professional looking female news anchor (always with dyed blond hair and big clothes), a jovial middle-aged overweight weather forecaster, a younger features reporter from the region's largest ethic groups, etc.

In the same way that every Marriott hotel room is identical, it's the same for breakfast television whereever you are in the US.

It's no wonder that viewers are choosing to view news content online before leaving for work instead of tuning into breakfast television with the resulting fall in ratings particularly among younger more upscale groups. Ironically, I learned more about the US mid term elections and current legislative proposals being considered by the State of California by listening to my car radio 7,000 miles away in the UK for half an hour than I had done during three days staying in the country.

Comments:

Even in 2003, when I was last out in the US for a significant time (a couple of months on a research project), I found a bunch of our Menlo Park-based engineers whose preferred news source was http://news.bbc.co.uk/.

This may be down to the influence of all the UK expats in the Bay Area, or the fact that the engineers talk regularly with all sorts of folk worldwide, but it was refreshing to see - quite the opposite of the US breakfast news shows, in fact :-).

Posted by Dave Walker on October 31, 2006 at 06:42 AM GMT #

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