Outreach to TV News Viewers:
"Interactivity" and "Choice"
Many commercial television stations in the United States have begun working
to provide news viewers with forms of "interactivity" or "choice."
terms generally are used to imply a new degree of audience influence
discrete news decisions or at least the available news menu. Indeed,
are linked to forms of communication which together suggest the
of a radically new perspective on the station-viewer relationship.
If broadly implemented--and implementation is spreading--this complex of
paths and techniques could affect a power balance which has underlain
broadcasting from its start. The traditional "exchange" in which viewers
simply have swapped their attention for information (McManus, 1994)
The prospect of full TV interactivity, permitting audiences to probe,
expand or criticize news reports through remote control devices (RCDs)
computer links, has been widely publicized; yet so far enabling
remain unavailable in many cities. Some stations are attempting to
potential demand through a kind of lower-tech interactivity. This
new paths for comments and requests from viewers. In some cases, it
includes letting news viewers shape what stations put on the air.
Quasi-interactivity devices include polls, focus groups, mail surveys,
telephone lines and E-mail. Offerings of "choice" include the
to vote on news stories to be aired, as well as alternative
station may place on a second channel.
Some forecasters believe--however radical the notion in light of broadcast
history--that viewers must become active partners if stations are to
long-term audience loyalty. This study is an initial effort to
what degree such ideas are being translated into action.
Less than a quarter-century ago Leroy and Sterling declared that
"individuals have little substantive power to influence the mass news
system" (Leroy and Sterling, 1973). A decade later, investigators of
content such as Carroll still depicted news decisions as
little direct viewer input (Carroll, 1985).
Recent analyses of the social effects of television, such as those of Kubey
and Csikszentmihalyi (1990), have continued to frame the
relationship as a hands-off affair in which viewers have little real
However, some forecasters posit a future in which the individual viewer
will rule. Brandon Tartikoff, a highly successful network
predicts a "democracy of choice, not a tyranny of choice like before.
will choose what you want to watch, when you want to
1994). An experienced consultant sees "an ongoing desire on the part
viewers for choice, and a desire to control television to fit their
needs--not to be controlled by television" (Standish, 1994).
Viewer power was born when A. C. Nielsen began measuring audiences soon
after television was introduced in 1948 (Buzzard, 1990). The goal of
measurement was, and has been since, to increase broadcasters'
clarifying audience desires. Embedded in that, inevitably, has been
increasing influence for viewers (or at least their program choices) with
every turn of the technological screw--right up to passive
measurement tied to electronic devices embedded in viewers' jewelry
Conceptually, "interactivity" aims to remove the researcher as middle man.
Because it increases viewers' direct contact with stations, it is
promotable to audiences. But very few U.S. households have access to
advanced technological interactivity with television--requiring
of fiber-optic connections--even though many industry executives
it would be in 10 percent of homes by the mid-1990s (Mitchell,
The most widely publicized U.S. interactive-TV project, in Orlando, Fla.,
has suffered technical delays and holds uncertain business prospects
Time Warner (Dempsey, 1994). Access to bandwidth remains a serious
perhaps long-term obstacle to extensive broadcast interactivity (Stern,
This appears to frustrate demand which has been supported by polling data,
mostly through industry-funded studies. In a 1993 survey by a
firm, 71 percent of respondents said they would use full
available, to comment to stations on news coverage (Clawson, 1993).
Relatively affluent consumers in three cities targeted for testing of
interactive-TV tests said they would use it more for news than to do home
shopping (The Plain Dealer, 1994).
Meanwhile, quasi-interactivity has developed. As far back as
1982, a Connecticut cable news program was billed as "interactive"
its 200-household audience was encouraged to phone in story ideas
Times, 1982). CBS in 1992 invited viewers onto a toll-free phone
critique President Bush's State of the Union address (Chicago
1992). CBS in 1994 let viewers "vote"--call in their opinions--on
of the O.J. Simpson double-murder case (St. Petersburg Times, 1994).
Electronic mail, while limited to computer-equipped viewers, provides an
ever-widening opening to audiences. All three network affiliates in
Indianapolis now use it (Garmel, 1994). A Portland, Oregon producer
demographic benefits in his station's new E-mail accessibility
service America Online: "Consider who is on the other end of the
People with home computer systems and modems are part of a very
audience." (Ray, 1994).
At the end of March 1995, the Radio-Television News Directors Association
listed 18 stations which had created "home pages" on the Internet's
Wide Web" (RTNDA, 1995). These are entrance gates to constantly
information on a station's programming and personnel--frequently
reporters' E-mail addresses. WCVB in Boston, one of the country's
news operations, now solicits story ideas through E-mail
Direct viewer influence even has extended--albeit in sharply
limited experiments--to story selection. In 1990 Cable News
regularly announcing one newscast's offerings, then inviting viewers
a 900 phone number to vote on stories they wished to see in full
1991). This model evidently influenced WSJV in Elkhart (South Bend
et), Indiana. It now promotes features, then lets viewers vote over a
toll-free telephone line and broadcasts only the winning stories.
in Springfield, Massachusetts lets viewers vote all afternoon on 5
stories (Hosbein, 1995).
Emphasizing choice over interactivity, WCCO-TV in Minneapolis broadcasts
not one but two 10 p.m. news programs; they differ in style and
RCD-equipped viewers are urged to graze between them (Upshaw, 1994).
news director John Lansing cited delays in full interactivity--and
for audience loyalty--and said: "We decided it would be smart not
for the technology" (Lansing, 1994).
The need to hold loyalty in a dense, fragmented market has begun
impelling stations to create conceptual two-way streets to viewers. The
rate and extent to which stations nationally are moving in this
must be gauged to establish whether a broad and authentically new
is under way.
Whether either the viewer or the broadcaster is ready for true and profound
change has been debatable. The author held two expectations of this
that many news directors would confess to seeking promotional value
ratings from their projects; but that--in the spirit of American
business--only a minority would report an intention to release to their
viewers true control over television news.
Anecdotal accounts of news-station innovations--including many
accomplished without new technology--directed this study toward a
preliminary and exploratory mapping of the field. The mail survey
supporting it would have to catch busy news executives' attention, hold that
attention by asking clear and pertinent questions, and elicit simple
No single ideal survey length is known to exist. Dillman concluded that
questionnaires longer than 12 pages run the risk of diminished
(Dillman, 1978). Yammarino, Skinner and Childers discovered response
rates dropping in surveys exceeding four pages (Yammarino, 1991).
Eschewing generalizations, Fowler declares: "The extent to which the
of a self-administered questionnaire affects costs and response
with the population being studied and the topic" (Fowler, 1984).
The author's experience in a previous study, as well as in television news
itself, suggested that when feasible, a dramatically brief
could elicit a high response from news personnel. Consequently, a
questionnaire was designed to require literally 90 seconds to
form was entitled "Minute-Thirty Survey"--and headed with a note
that to the approximate length of the lead story in a newscast, to
how meager the time needed for completion would be.
The form was divided into two sections. In the first, the respondent was
to place check marks beside all methods used by that station "to
viewers a sense of choice or interactivity in news coverage." (The
"a sense of" was included purposefully, to elicit reponses even from
introspective executives who might consider their outreach more
As "interactivity" methods the survey listed E-mail, 800 or other phone
numbers, on-air viewer forums, off-air focus groups, and mail surveys.
"Choice" options (not providing viewer-input mechanisms) were
newscasts on other over-the-air stations, and alternative newscasts
A second section asked the respondent to indicate all specific purposes for
which such methods were being used. Options listed: "get news
"promote station image", "run news/opinion polls', "let viewers pick
stories", "set coverage agenda", "expand news choices", "give viewers
control", "use news staff better", "increase gross ratings" and "improve
These possible purposes of choice/interactivity techniques were selected to
stimulate rather subtle responses. It was hoped, for example, that
and demographics would retain their distinctness from each other as
measurement values. Also of interest was the degree to which news
would discriminate between expanding viewers' choices and giving
The survey was pre-tested on news directors in Portland and
Eugene, Oregon. They reacted positively to its content and its
"minute-thirty" brevity; several offered minor clarifications of wording.
Forms were mailed in December 1994 to news directors of 650
network-affiliated and independent U.S. stations. These individuals
identified through lists published in Broadcasting & Cable Yearbook,
directory of the National Association of Television Program
rosters of news directors of ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates obtained
network or station executives. (Some inaccuracies due to recent job
Stamped return envelopes were provided. News directors were asked to note
their station call letters on the questionnaires, but the call
not to be published. Nor were respondents asked to sign the forms;
confidentiality was guaranteed, and what ensued was anonymity for
participants who chose to supply neither their names nor their call letters.
After a second mailing and a round of telephone reminders, responses
totaled 291, a return rate of 45 percent.
Response frequencies make clear that call-in phone lines to which viewers
are directed, as well as electronic mail, top the popularity charts
news directors who seek to provide "interactivity" or "choice".
Seventy percent of respondents (206) reported the use of of 800, 900 or
other lines as communication routes from the consumer.(Table 1)
stations (6.5%) indicated they will begin using such phone lines
66 stations (22.7%) said they neither provide nor soon will provide
service to viewers.
More than one-third of respondents--106 (36.4%)--said their stations were
using E-mail (which requires that home users have computers with
Almost as many stations--104 (35.7%)--reported they plan to launch
E-mail or provide Internet access soon. Taken together, these two
categories represent the most direct route to newsrooms currently available
to the public.
The third most popular outreach method was off-air focus groups, with 119
stations (40.9%) reportedly using them to determine audience wishes
another 34 (11.7%) expecting to do so soon.
Of the methods surveyed, least popular were alternative newscasts. Only
53 stations (18.2%) reported placing or planning to place newscasts
over-the-air channels. Cable was more popular: 90 stations
they place or soon will place alternative newscasts on cable.
Beyond the listed options, 41 respondents (14.1%) said they now or soon
will employ other viewer-outreach techniques. These included
information via "fax"; entering on-line talk forums via CompuServe,
Online or similar services; setting up live viewer call-ins during
programs; use of station "voicemail" to route, receive and store
encouraging viewers to send in videotape; phone banks to answer
about stories; simultaneous airing of TV newscasts on AM radio;
on stories through mailings in self-addressed envelopes sent in by
and telephone surveys.
To promote station image was identified by many respondents as a major
purpose of several choice/interactivity methods. E-mail and this
were aligned significantly (Table 2)--reflecting the promotional
networking with viewers via computer.
Promotion potential also motivates stations to program alternative
newscasts on other over-air outlets and on cable. (Table 3) Such programs
supply viewers with "choice" but not "interactivity". Broadcasters
promote these second newscasts extensively may transfer brand appeal to
alternative outlets without losing loyalty to the "home" stations.
E-mail and Internet access for viewers, while separate from the act of
viewing, are considered to serve the purpose of increasing gross
newscasts. (Table 4)
News directors evidently have found strong utility in telephone and E-mail
for getting news tips. That was in fact the most frequently cited
of the two forms of technological communication link: 198 (68%) of
respondents said they use viewer phone lines to receive story ideas, while
145 (49.8%) do so with E-mail. (Table 5)
Yet in strong contrast to use of E-mail as a viewer communication path
stands the prevailing attitude of news directors that the purpose is
give viewers control. The contrary appears to be true of all
some cases to a statistically significant degree (Table 6)
Summarizing chi-square analysis, stations institute E-mail or Internet
access as a way to let viewers comment, as a promotable service and as
means of increasing ratings. These outreach methods also bring in
tips, which both aid efficiency and heighten viewer engagement with the
However, results support the expectation that news directors would not
agree that they are turning the reins over to audiences. The emphasis
promotion--and use of "choice" methods like alternative newscasts for
promotional purposes--appears instead to support the traditional role of
broadcasters: experimenting with programs, and promoting them, until
That local television news is shifting to meet new audience demands and
competitive pressures is supported by this preliminary and exploratory
study. While changes are heavily promotion-oriented, there has been
movement toward opening lines to viewers. Stations which once might
relied only on research consultants to canvass audiences and help
programming have begun meeting the viewers head-on.
Roughly three-quarters of news directors responding to the study now
dedicate or plan to dedicate phone lines or electronic mail to viewer
The process of phone-line adoption mostly is complete, but adoption of
E-mail or Internet access is only halfway along, with about as many
it as already are using it.
More than half of the respondents use or plan to use off-air focus groups
to obtain viewer comment on news programming. More than 40 percent
stations put viewers on the air in forums or soon will; this not only
acquires but displays viewer comment and thus stimulates wider audience
engagement with news programming. More than one-quarter of responding
stations employ or will employ mail surveys--a venerable and well
research tool--to gauge news-viewer opinion.
This outreach fits neatly with evidence that audiences have become active
through their remote control devices: One study found some viewers
channel-flipping at rates nearing 400 times an hour (Ferguson, 1994). And
while network-affiliated stations remain attractive even in markets
many alternatives via cable (Cooper, 1993), competition is drawing
viewers away from traditional news sources.
This could partly explain the limited trend toward alternative newscasts.
These remain rare on over-the-air channels, and even more rarely used as
simultaneous options for RCD-armed viewers as in the WCCO-TV model.
However, alternative newscasts on "foreign" outlets extend the reach of a
station's promotion and advertising and can tap special tastes;
identified discrete segments of TV-news audiences which followed unique
preferences (Wicks, 1989). Some programmers will serve "niche"
through alternative newscasts, and future research should document
strategies and progress.
Ratings continue to motivate TV executives; while not always statistically
significant, between 30 and 45 percent of respondents associated the
"increase gross ratings" with every outreach option offered in this
That stations are adopting "choice" and low-tech "interactivity" for news
viewers could reflect both the promise and the peril confronting
television news. The 1990s appear to have brought a shift in audience
interest from larger national issues back to community concerns (Peirce,
1991). But viewer loyalty is less reliable than in the past and--as
in this branch of an entertainment medium--viewer tastes confound
managers: "We do something you consider serious, they tune out,"
one (Hill, 1993).
Moreover, with new corporate owners redrawing priorities and network
affiliations destabilized in many markets, some executives now invest
in cost-cutting efficiency than in quality of news coverage
Fletcher and Hamilton, 1994). To weed out unnecessary news expenditures
permitting viewers to influence and even prune coverage agendas is,
undeniably, a step toward efficiency whatever its journalistic effects.
Ventures in TV-news "choice" and "interactivity" proceed amid
contradictory signs. One industry poll found 68 percent of respondents
interested in choosing stories on a customized television news channel
(Chilton, 1993); at the other pole lie failed interactivity market tests
one researcher's conviction that, despite all, most television
"pretty passive and quite content to have the programs fed to them"
Early research is needed to dissect outreach strategies, their geographic
distribution and intramarket adoption rates, and trends in impact on
programming and viewership. Subsequent research should examine viewer
concerns as transmitted to newly receptive broadcast staffs; the
of journalists toward interactivity with their public; active-viewer
demographics and any correlations with the form and content of messages to
stations, and the long-range impact of outreach techniques on news
The "choice" and "interactivity" highlighted in this study appear to
represent an industry view that viewers must be drawn in, at least as
advisors, if local news is to extend its commercial success. Pessimists
might argue that such moves amount to no more than substitutes for
journalism serious enough to be innately responsive to public needs.
Optimists could counter that regardless, the public interest is sure to
regain some of its former high status as viewer acquires influence,
radically revising the old seller-buyer relationship.
At a minimum these efforts appear to signify a historical pause in
television's development, in which news programmers do what they can to
engage viewers while awaiting technologies many hope will bring full
interactivity. Merely to comment from a home computer, veto stories over
phone line, seek a station's alternative news menus through the
might seem primitive when viewed in retrospect from a truly
Station adoption of "choice"/"interactivity" for TV-news viewers
1 2 3 4 5
Method 1: E-mail/Internet Method 5: On-air viewer forums
Method 2: Viewer phone lines Method 6: Off-air focus groups
Method 3: Alternative newscast Method 7: Mail surveys
(2nd over-air channel)
Method 4: Alternative newscast
"Promote station image"
as purpose of E-mail
Chi-square=21.67, df=1, p=<.00000
1 = Plan to adopt E-mail soon
2 = Currently use E-mail
"Promote station image"
as purpose of alternative
newscast (on cable)
Chi-square=4.30, df=1, p=<.03802
1=Plan to begin alternative newscast soon
2=Currently produce alternative newscast
"Increase gross ratings"
as purpose of E-mail
Chi-square=7.39, df=1, p=<.00656
1=Plan to adopt E-mail soon
2=Currently use E-mail
"Get news tips"
as purpose of E-mail
Chi-square=14.62, df=1, p=.00013
1=Plan to adopt E-mail soon
2=Currently use E-mail
"Give viewers control"
as purpose of E-mail
Chi-square=11.37, df=1, p=< .00074
1=Plan to adopt E-mail soon
2=Currently use E-mail
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The distinction between view
ers and their program choices, as measured by Nielsen and
other firms, is not a trivial one. The major complaint against audience rese
been that its inherent inaccuracies are used by b
roadcasters--without direct viewer
that distort viewers' will, sometimes bizarrely. Prominent
network researcher David Poltrack has conceded this. (Poltrack, 1992)
] Such is not the case in Canada. Videoway, a home system by which consume
tailor TV news presentations, has been successful i
n Montreal since the late 1980s and
now is being expanded
to other countries (Culf, 1994).
 The company remains optimistic publ
icly and pledges to expand its service, which
viewers to "zap" through commercials and watch only the news they wish
 The call-ins, not insignificantly, al
so facilitate instant demographic interviews
which can pro
ve useful in selling advertising time. (Hosbein, 1994)
 The author in
1993 asked 36 TV news directors for permission to send an
attitudinal survey to their employees. Some received previews of the 65-ques
survey; most did not request them. Eighteen news di
rectors (50%) rejected the project.
Some clearly were uncomfortable with
the job-satisfaction aspects of the study;
some blamed fe
ar of exposure or corporate uncertainties for their decision to reject
it; most said simply that neither they nor their employees had
time to help. "Things
are just too hectic," said a news d
irector in Chicago. Others: "I must get five or
those a month" ( Philadelphia ); "We just don't have time for things like thi
(South Bend, Indiana); "We get so many of these...they
take so much time" (Fort Myers,
Florida). The 18 newsroom
s in which the survey was accepted yielded only a 15 percent
response rate. Hence the decision in the current study--which also treats
controversial topics--to hold the questionnaire to a
single dense page of questions.
 The aim in granting confidentiality
was to elicit candor from news directors in
not only of current but of planned projects in "interactivity" or
"choice." The author reasoned that otherwise, competitive concerns
leading to fear of
exposure might discourage full response
 Some news directors listed under "other" a number of outreach meth
ods which could
have fit within listed categories. These included call-in
segments during newscasts
("800, 900 or other phone line")
and on-line service, computer bulletin boards, and for
with Compuserve or AOL ("E-mail or Internet access to station"). To find th
listed under "other" suggests either question ambiguit
y, eagerness of respondents to
provide distinguishing deta
ils, or both. In any case, the author gratefully acknowledg
es the helpful cooperation of all.
 The purpose "give viewers contro
l" repelled programmers of alternative newscasts
to a stat
istically significant degree. So did most other purposes among programmers o
alternative newscasts on over-air channels.
 A risk in inviting v
iewers to use their RCDs to reach a station's alternative
newscast is that they will "zap" right past it to a competitor's channel. S
uch was a
rival news director's hope when WCCO began its "
News of your Choice" with a test run in
late summer 1994: "Whenever you as
k people to change channels, they may not go where
t them to; they might stop on us" (Mason, 1994). The rival station, KARE-TV,
began a counter-promotion campaign to woo WCCO viewers in