NBC Nightly News: Network News for Dummies

In a 29 minute NBC Nightly News broadcast, a total of 13 news stories lasting just 19 minutes 47 seconds, bombarded viewers with 233 video or still images, with a new image appearing an average of every 5.1 seconds

No 670 Posted by fw, February 04, 2013

By the most concrete and financially significant measurement — total viewership — 2011 was a good year for network news programs. In the evening, an average of 22.5 million people watched one of the three commercial broadcast news programs on ABC, CBS or NBC. That is an increase of 972,700 viewers, or 4.5%, over the average viewership the year before, according to PEJ analysis of data from Nielsen Media Research.” —The Pew Research Center, The State of the News Media 2012

“…all three networks changed hands in the 1980’s. General Electric bought NBC. Capital Cities Communications bought ABC. And Laurence Tisch, a hotel and theater magnate, assumed control at CBS. These new owners stepped up the pressure on the news divisions to become more efficient businesses. …If, to become profitable, network news divisions had to become more entertainment-oriented.”Nieman Reports, The Transformation of Network News: How Profitability Has Moved Networks Out of Hard News, Special Issue 1999

According to my analysis of a single NBC Nightly News program, the findings suggest that communicating with a public that relies on the big three US commercial broadcast news programs is a tough sell for citizen activists.  Be prepared for largely passive audiences dumbed down by a numbing dose of “entertaining” news with more than a dash of advertising, both featuring a deluge of sound bites and flashing visual images.

Purpose of Analysis – The purpose of this simplistic quantitative analysis of a single NBC Nightly News show was to affirm my admittedly biased impressions of US network TV news. I line up with critics who characterize broadcast news as vacuous pap for legions of passive viewers, incapable of critical, independent thinking — the viewership skewered by Stuart McMillen in his May 2009 comic strip, Amusing Ourselves to Death. The driving purpose of network news seems to be to boost audience ratings by capturing and holding viewers’ attention in order to please the networks’ corporate bosses, its commercial sponsors, and to avoid offending influential political and corporate powerbrokers. In short, network news is a form of choreographed entertainment. (Media Matters is a reliable source of critical reviews of media news coverage).

Note: The Method of Analysis and raw Data Table for this study appear in an Addenda at the very bottom of this post.

SELECTED FINDINGS

Length of segments

  • In a 29 minute broadcast on January 30, 2013, NBC Nightly News allotted just 19 min 47 sec to present 13 news stories, which averages to about 1 min 30 sec per story. Continue reading to find out how the remaining 9 min 13 sec were spent.
  • 17 separate commercials, presented in 3 clusters, took up 7 min 42 sec, just 3 seconds less time than the total of 7 min 39 sec taken by the shortest 9 of the 13 news stories.
  • 7 transition segments — Opening, Coming up, and Closing items – took a total of 1 min 35 sec
  • The longest news item, “Fight over Guns” took 3 min 26 sec — In commercial TV news land, this probably counts as an “in-depth” story.
  • The shortest story was the death of the last surviving Andrews’ sister coming in at newslite 22 sec.
  • Having allocated just 1 min 7 sec to Israel’s airstrike in Syria, NBC was hard pressed to explain the significance of the attack. The storyline stayed within its presumed ideological comfort zone by focusing on Israel’s determination to keep missiles out of the hands of its enemies. It seems that in the Middle East only Israel has the right to arm itself to the teeth. Presumably, Arabs only have the right to die. No mention was made of the factual sources for the story or of the fact that US arms supplies to Israel are often in violation of US law.

News stories in rank order by time in seconds (most to least)

  • 1/ Fight over Guns (3 min 26 sec)
  • 2/ Deadly Storms (3 min 2 sec)
  • 3/ Al Gore (2 min 48 sec)
  • 4/ The Epidemic – shootings in Chicago (2 min 28 sec)
  • 5/ All in the Family — Super Bowl story (2 min 9 sec)
  • 6/ Emotional Farewell – John Kerry leaves Senate (1 min 10 sec)
  • 7/ Airstrike – Israel attack in Syria (1 min 7 sec)
  • 8/ Weather Channel Meteorologist Report (60 sec)
  • 9/ Trying Again – Blackberry story (29 sec)
  • 10/ On the Hunt – cats killing birds (28 sec)
  • 11/ Say It Ain’t So – myths about dieting (28 sec)
  • 12/ Kerry’s Interim Replacement (26 sec)
  • 13/ Andrews Sisters (22 sec)

Number of images

  • 233 video or still images were presented during the 13 news stories, representing a different image every 5.1 seconds on average
  • Although no image count was made for the 17 commercials, there was a rapid-fire burst of video bits in every ad.
  • Given the brevity of the news stories and the bombardment of visual images, the network’s purpose seems to be to simply retain the attention of passive viewers, not to promote critical, independent thinking.

News stories in rank order by number of distinct video or still images

  • 1/ Deadly Storms — 48 images with a new image appearing on avg every 3.8 sec
  • 2/ Fight over Guns — 40 images with a new image appearing on avg every 5.2 sec
  • 3/ Al Gore — 34 images with a new image appearing on avg every 4.9 sec
  • 4/ All in the Family — 33 images with a new image appearing on avg every 4.9 sec
  • 5/ The Epidemic — 32 images with a new image appearing on avg every 4.6 sec
  • 6/ Airstrike — 12 images with a new image appearing on avg every 5.6 sec
  • 7/ Trying Again — 8 images with a new image appearing on avg every 3.6 sec
  • 8/ Emotional Farewell — 7 images with a new image appearing on avg every 10 sec
  • 9/ Weather Channel — 6 images with a new image appearing on avg every 10 sec
  • 10/ On the Hunt — 6 images with a new image appearing on avg every 4.7 sec
  • 11/ Andrews Sisters — 5 images with a new image appearing on avg every 4.4 sec
  • 12/ Say It Ain’t So — 1
  • 13/ Kerry’s interim replacement — 1

News Content – Comparing NBC with Democracy Now

  • For examples of NBC content refer to the foregoing content lists. Note that in its January 30 broadcast only 2 stories had international content, but both had domestic implications – “Airstrike” and “Trying Again” (Blackberry story).

Democracy Now is a US progressive, nonprofit, commercial-free, independently syndicated one-hour program of news, analysis, and opinion, aired daily Monday-Friday by more than 1000 radio, television, satellite and cable TV networks in North America. Current and past shows are also freely available on the Internet where access to full story transcripts is available.

Here is DN’s content line-up for January 30, 2013, a broadcast that ran 58 min 56 sec

Headline Stories (11 min 51 sec)

In-Depth Stories

ADDENDA

A — Method of Analysis – For no special reason, I chose to analyze the January 30, 2013, NBC Nightly News, anchored by Brian Williams. I recorded the show on a DVD digital hard drive so that I could use the remote’s Pause button to stop and start the recording in order to record the length of program segments. The start of the program was recorded as 00 seconds.

For each segment, a handwritten record was made of the start and stop times as well as a brief description of the content for that segment. For example, a news segment titled “Fight Over Guns” had a start time of 52 seconds – representing 52 seconds from the very start of the news broadcast – and an end time of 04:18 (4 min 18 sec from the start of the broadcast) — giving a story duration of 3 min 26 sec.

Next, the handwritten data was entered into an Excel spreadsheet (see Table below). For ease of calculating length of a segment, the time measures were converted to seconds. Additional columns were inserted to facilitate further data analysis, including: Length of Segment; Length of Segment as a percent of the total time of the program; Number of images, full-screen video or still; Number of Picture-in-Picture (PiP) images; Total number of images; and Average number of seconds per single image exposure.

Using a print copy of this spreadsheet, I re-viewed the news show a second time using the remote Pause button to record the number of images (video or still) that appeared in either full screen or Picture-in-Picture (PiP) format. These counts were then transferred to the computer version of the spreadsheet. All other calculations derived from the spreadsheet’s raw data.

The DVD and remote equipment used to measure lapsed time are imprecise. Therefore, the time measures of transitions between the end of one segment and the beginning of the next are imprecise resulting in minor errors. For example, the sum of all sub-total segments comes to 1720 seconds while the difference between the beginning and the end point of the show as a whole is 1741 seconds. Not a perfect match, but good enough for the purpose of this analysis.

B — NBC NIGHTLY NEWS Content Data Table for Jan 30, 2013 broadcast

Legend: FS=fullscreen / PiP=picture-in-picture / Tot=Total / S/Im=Avg # seconds per image

Start

Stop

Time

%

Content included

FS

PiP

Tot

S/Im

0

42

42

2.44%

Transition — Brian Williams — Lead stories — Gabby Gifford, Deadly storms, Israel airstrike on Syria, Super Bowl parents

1

17

18

2.3

42

52

10

0.58%

Transition — “This is NBC nightly news with Brian Williams”

2

0

2

5.0

52

258

206

11.98%

Fight Over Guns — Gabby Giffords, Congress gun control hearings, another Arizona shooting, Patrick Leahy, Gifford’s husband Mark Kelly, Wayne Lapierre, Lindsey Graham, Obama clip

39

1

40

5.2

258

406

148

8.60%

The Epidemic — Chicago gun violence, shooting death of 15 yr-old-girl, mother who lost 4 children due to gun shootings

25

7

32

4.6

406

588

182

10.58%

Deadly Storms — tornadoes, destruction and damage, injuries and deaths, video clips of storms, White House sandbagging

45

3

48

3.8

588

648

60

3.49%

Weather Channel Meteorologist report — tornado watch continues, Severe Storm Central, [no mention of climate change]

6

0

6

10.0

648

718

70

4.07%

Emotional Farewell — John Kerry’s tears up at Senate farewell, pays tribute to Kennedys

6

1

7

10.0

718

744

26

1.51%

Kerry’s interim replacement — plus newly elected Elizabeth Warren now senior senator for Massachusetts

1

0

1

26.0

745

812

67

3.90%

Airstrike — Significance of Israel’s airstrike on missiles in Syria, to keep missiles out of hands of enemies of Israel [no mention of factual sources, no mention of US arms supply to Israel]

12

0

12

5.6

813

830

17

0.99%

Transition — Brian Williams — Coming up — Al Gore and Super Bowl

7

0

7

2.4

831

890

59

3.43%

Commercial — Travel promotion to visit US Gulf States sponsored by BP

0

890

906

16

0.93%

Commercial – Disney’s Peter Pan DVD release

0

907

935

28

1.63%

Commercial — USAA retirement advice for military families

0

936

951

15

0.87%

Commercial — Phillips constipation relief

0

952

1120

168

9.77%

Al Gore — interview by Andrea Mitchell, Gore on climate change, Obama clip on climate change, Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, separation from wife, sale of his cable network to Aljazeera for $500 million, folly of taking on gun lobby

34

0

34

4.9

1121

1127

6

0.35%

Transition — Brian Williams — Coming up — Myths about keeping off the pounds

1

0

1

6.0

1128

1132

4

0.23%

Transition — image of closing Wall Street results

1

0

1

4.0

1133

1162

29

1.69%

Commercial — Ensure Complete ad nutrition supplement drink

0

1163

1177

14

0.81%

Commercial — EnergyTomorrow.org promo ad by oil and natural gas industry

0

1178

1237

59

3.43%

Commercial – Symbicort — product to improve lung functions

0

1238

1268

30

1.74%

Commercial — Fidelity Investments

0

1268

1284

16

0.93%

Commercial — EnergyTomorrow.org promo ad by oil and natural gas industry

0

1285

1316

31

1.80%

Commercial — Gardner White furniture

0

1317

1339

22

1.28%

Andrews Sisters – Death of last surviving Andrews’ sister

5

0

5

4.4

1340

1369

29

1.69%

Trying Again — Blackberry 10 returns to iphone lineup

8

0

8

3.6

1370

1398

28

1.63%

On the Hunt — Cats killing billions of birds annually, images of cats on the prowl

6

0

6

4.7

1399

1427

28

1.63%

Say It Ain’t So — Weight loss myths

1

0

1

28.0

1428

1437

9

0.52%

Transition — Brian Williams — When we come back — Brother against brother in Super Bowl

3

0

3

3.0

1438

1468

30

1.74%

Commercial — Zyrtec — for allergy sufferers

0

1468

1498

30

1.74%

Commercial – Lincoln auto ad

0

1498

1513

15

0.87%

Commercial — Campbell’s soup

0

1513

1543

30

1.74%

Commercial – Ameriprise Financial — retirement planning ad featuring Tommy Lee Jones

0

1543

1558

15

0.87%

Commercial – Bayer Aspirin

0

1558

1587

29

1.69%

Commercial — Transition eyeglass lenses

0

1588

1604

16

0.93%

Commercial — NBC’s Meet The Press ad

0

1605

1734

129

7.50%

All in the Family — obligatory “good news” story of Super Bowl brothers coaching opposing teams, includes parent’s reaction

29

4

33

3.9

1734

1741

7

0.41%

Transition — Brian Williams — “That’s our broadcast”

1

0

1

1720

Totals

233

33

265

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