The Shrinking of Foreign News: From Broadcast to Narrowcast

Courtesy Reuters

Television's foreign correspondents do not travel light. Off camera, their distinguishing feature is the small mountain of equipment traveling with them, which sets baggage handlers to dreaming of large tips and airlines to calculating budget-busting excess-weight charges.

The financial burden of that luggage is only one factor making the network television foreign correspondent an endangered species. New technologies in cable and satellite TV have turned the stable, predictable, almost automatically profitable television marketplace into a competitive cauldron in which journalism must increasingly compete with entertainment programming. This has prompted a redefining, or at least a questioning, of the traditional news agenda in the post-Cold War world. Producers and network executives believe the American mass audience's interest in daily events beyond their nation's borders is declining, so little such news is offered -- which exacerbates the high cost - low return (or low visibility) nature of international coverage today. On-screen sightings of foreign correspondents grow rarer in the place where the most people would see them -- on the networks. According to the Tyndall Report, total foreign coverage on network nightly news programs has declined precipitously, from 3,733 minutes in 1989 to 1,838 minutes in 1996 at ABC, the leader, and from 3,351 minutes to 1,175 minutes at third-place NBC.


The image of the correspondent reporting from some troubled land has become firmly imprinted in viewers' imaginations, particularly since 1963. Televised coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy bonded viewers to what was beginning to be called a "medium," which could convey human experience and emotions as they could never rise off the printed page. A Roper poll that year found for the first time that television was the main source of news for more Americans than newspapers. Moreover, in 1963 NBC and CBS expanded their nightly news programs from 15 minutes to 30. Some at the networks wondered whether there was an audience -- and, therefore, sponsors -- for the longer newscasts. More pressing yet, would there be enough news to fill the half-hour? One

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