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TV News History of the Past 50 Years

How TV News Has Evolved over the Last Half-Century

By

A photo of David Brinkley and Chet Huntley anchoring NBC News election night coverage in 1968

TV News has gone through many editorial and technological changes since the era of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC News in the 1960s.

Photo © Getty Images
Turn on the 6:00 newscast any time during the last 50 years and you're likely to find coverage of house fires, court cases and political races. But beyond the headlines, TV news history is filled with many changes. Chart the evolution of television news history and decide whether all the new equipment and ways of presenting the news truly make for a better broadcast.

TV News History: The 1960s

In the old black-and-white days of television, those who worked in TV news usually had backgrounds in radio or newspapers. A television news broadcast was hampered because it didn't have the reputation of newspaper journalism, nor was it able to complete with live, on-the-scene reporting of radio due to the lack of portable equipment.

But TV news grew up quickly with the Kennedy assassination. That event was so significant, it's one of the 12 events that changed TV news coverage forever.

TV news executives had to figure out a way to get live video, film, still photos -- any sort of image -- from the scene in Dallas, Texas, to the network studios to be transmitted to the nation. The customary practice of having a newsman (there were no women) simply reading a script on camera from New York or Washington wouldn't be enough.

That event showed people at the networks and at affiliate stations throughout the country that TV news history would be made through pictures and video. That seems obvious today, but 50 years ago there was no easy way to produce television from the scene of news events. Stories from the Vietnam War were days old before they reached Americans' living rooms. Live coverage of parades or other planned events took large trucks and cameras that had to be set up hours ahead of time. Satellites weren't around to send video around the world in an instant.

TV News History: The 1970s

A new decade brought many breakthroughs to television news. Viewers were seeing people other than white men delivering their news as stations and networks added women and people of other races to their staffs. Barbara Walters made TV news history when she joined Harry Reasoner at ABC to become the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast.

For local stations, a trend began to have news "teams" presenting the news, rather than just a man behind a simple desk. In the age of color TV, a lot of money was spent on anchor desks, news music, logo design and news promotion. Show business had started having an influence on news at both the local and national levels.

Consultants were often hired to conduct market research. The focus shifted to bringing people information they wanted to see, versus what they needed to know.

That's one reason local TV newscasts started looking the same, regardless of whether you were watching in Denver, Dallas or Detroit. Based on research, stations decided their anchor teams needed to be warm, friendly and funny, which began an era that some call "happy talk". Banter between team members became critical in developing a relationship with the viewers, so the anchorman poking fun at the weatherman's necktie was encouraged to lighten up the "show".

During this decade, videotape began replacing film, which made it easier to get images on the air faster. In addition, live microwave trucks allowed local stations to "go live" from the scene at a moment's notice. To justify the expense of purchasing this gear, some stations covered ribbon cuttings and other light news events live, just to show they could.

TV News History: The 1980s

The 1980s also reflected how TV news consulting firms changed TV news history. They convinced network and station executives that there was more to present than just typical news, weather and sports.

News organizations sought to make viewers' lives better. That included health and consumer reporting to help people live longer and save money. No longer were newscasts dependent on the day's events for content. These reports, called "franchises", were usually heavily promoted as a way to differentiate a newscast from the competition.

Critics usually blast local stations for putting style over substance, but that charge can also be made at the network level. When the iconic Walter Cronkite retired from anchoring the CBS Evening News in 1981, he was replaced by Dan Rather, who was known for his hard-hitting reports on the network's 60 Minutes newsmagazine. There was a period that Rather began wearing sweaters on the air under his suit jacket -- some say to warm up his persona.

This decade saw the introduction of computers to many newsrooms, which made everything from finding archived stories to the mayor's home phone number easier. Networks and some stations even added satellite newsgathering trucks, which allowed them to drive across country to beam back news reports. As with the introduction of microwave trucks in the 1970s, stations looked for any reason to use this equipment, even driving hundreds of miles to cover hurricanes that didn't threaten their local coverage area.

TV News History: The 1990s

For the networks, the 1990s were the years of the newsmagazine. While viewers were already familiar with 60 Minutes and ABC's 20/20, other similar shows started popping up on network schedules as a cheaper alternative to scripted entertainment programming. ABC's Primetime Live (which actually premiered in late-1989), NBC's Dateline NBC and CBS's Eye to Eye with Connie Chung are just a few examples from this period.

Many of the newsmagazines fought to make names for themselves by turning to investigative reporting, which produced controversy. Dateline NBC was forced to apologize after airing an inaccurate report on alleged pickup truck fires. ABC's Primetime Live took heat for the way it reported a story about a supermarket chain's food-handling practices.

Some local stations turned away from the family-oriented heath and consumer reporting to hard-hitting, tabloid-style investigations. Logos were designed to be bigger, bolder to attract the attention of viewers, who now had dramatically more programs to watch other than newscasts thanks to cable TV.

President Bill Clinton's sex scandal involving Monica Lewinsky was a story tailor made for this period. Still, most newscasters cringed at having to repeat the details that nearly brought down the president.

With the Internet starting to become a part of Americans' homes, news organizations developed their first email systems and websites to communicate with the public in a new way. They didn't know then about the computer revolution that would challenge their dominance as news providers.

TV News History: The 2000s

Market research and technology took a back seat to old-fashioned reporting during the 2000s, because of two events -- the presidential election of 2000 and the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001. Suddenly, anchor set design and sex scandal coverage became trivial.

The 2000 presidential election was not a made-for-tv event like a space shuttle launch or a hurricane, yet television executives had no choice but to cover it. The mundane collection and re-counting of Florida ballots may not have made for captivating programming, but the future of the presidency was at stake. TV news helped Americans understand the Electoral College and other long-forgotten aspects of our election system.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks by themselves changed TV news in ways that could not have been predicted. Anchors found themselves having to simultaneously report bad news while trying to provide some reassurance to the viewers. Newsrooms that heard about rumors of further terrorist action had to decide whether they should report what they knew or wait to get the facts.

Website development allowed video stories to be posted easily, which presented its own dilemma. News organizations had to choose whether to put stories on the Internet immediately to beat their competitors, or hold off until after their on-air broadcasts so that their viewership didn't suffer.

TV News History: The 2010s

This decade has brought so many technological changes that it's hard to determine what viewers want from a TV newscast. There are so many choices in where to get information that sitting down to watch the 6:00 p.m. news is rapidly becoming a habit of generations past with little relevance to today's news consumers.

TV newsrooms are changing their priorities to become information providers across a variety of platforms. Websites are only part of the delivery system. Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media have become imporant ways to reach potential viewers where they're hanging out. Mobile devices, from cellphones to tablet computers, are forcing strategy to be developed to reach people on the go.

It's easy to assume that traditional TV news won't survive much longer. But the successful stations and networks can boost their odds of being around through the decades by focusing on what has gotten them to this point -- solid, accurate reporting that isn't influenced by outside sources, creative visual presentations and credible TV personalities who form long-lasting relationships with their audience.

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