THE INFLUENCE OF U.S. NEWS CONSULTANTS ON NEWSCASTS IN GREAT BRITAIN
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Telecommunication
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 85287-1305
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The Influence of U.S. News Consultants on Newscasts in Great Britain and Germany
With little fanfare, American news consultants recently have made major inroads
into the news media abroad. In the first examination of international news
consulting, consulted newscasts in the UK and Germany were found to have most of
the characteristics of consulted local TV newscasts in the United States.
Further investigation revealed that U.S. consultants operate not just in these
two countries but in at least eighteen others. Because issues in domestic TV
news have transferred overseas, more study of international news consulting is
The Influence of U.S. News Consultants on Newscasts in Great Britain and Germany
News consultants are applied research firms that maintain exclusive
relationships with many U.S. news media. They are hired by those media, often
at very high fees, for guidance that can increase audiences and maximize
profits. Although practically all local TV newsrooms, a growing number of
newspapers and magazines, and larger organizations such as the Cable News
Network are among their clients, news consultants work under a proprietary cover
and reveal little in public about their role and function. Because of or
despite a secrecy factor, news consultants have remained a subject of great
curiosity among scholars concerned with news communication. Critics argue that
the spread of research-consulting in the United States has fostered news content
that panders to the audience (Jacobs, 1990, pp. 60-61; Gitlin, 1993). Adding
fuel to the debate is sentiment that news consultants do not belong in
newsrooms, that outside advisors who are not journalists can influence those who
are (Barrett, 1975, pp. 89-112; Diamond, 1975, pp. 91-100; Powers, 1977, pp.
Although news consulting has remained difficult to study empirically, scholars
have an important new reason for redoubling such efforts: confirmed reports that
the three largest U.S. consulting firms have been invited into numerous
broadcast organizations overseas. Within five years of the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989, the Detroit-based McHugh & Hoffman had extended its reach into a
half-dozen Eastern European countries and subsequently added still newer clients
in Latin America. Following this, in 1993, the Dallas-based Audience Research &
Development, the second-largest consultant, signed a lucrative long-term
contract with the world's largest broadcast consortium, the Luxembourg-based
CTL, which on nine networks beams news and entertainment programs to about 200
million people from Spain to the Czech Republic. In the meantime, Frank N.
Magid Associates of Marion, Iowa, by 1994 had entire divisions based in London
and Kuala Lumper, Malaysia, for service to clients in Europe, the Middle East,
and Southeast Asia. Broadcast deregulation and private ownerships have
propelled these expansions, which alone can help U.S. scholars better grasp the
magnitude of global media privatization. Yet news consulting represents a
wholly new phenomenon in international communication, as for the first time
American advisors have actually penetrated foreign broadcast organizations and
established themselves as an indigenous force. International consulting is
meaningful not only because of its possible impact on foreign news. Because
technically they export nothing and instead have a hands-on function that is
physically based overseas, news consultants potentially complicate on-going
discussions of American "cultural imperialism," which to date have stressed
broad and sweeping U.S.-directed information "flows." Not widely considered is
the significance of indigenously-prepared news, which news consultants are set
up to affect.
The paper that follows is an exploratory study that sheds the first light on
international news consulting and establishes parameters for further research.
The major part of the paper consists of a content analysis of consulted and
non-consulted newscasts in Great Britain and Germany, two countries at the cusp
of privatization and the first to actively solicit American advising. From a
methodology developed in the U.S. that isolates characteristic features of
consulted newscasts, findings from both countries indicate that news consultants
may influence foreign national newscasts much as they have influenced local
newscasts in the U.S. The remainder of the paper maps the overseas movement of
the three largest U.S. news consultancies, Magid, AR&D, and McHugh & Hoffman,
and briefly describes some of the conditions under which these expansions have
taken place. Interviews with representatives of the firms and their clients
round out this final phase. Evidence that U.S. news consultants now operate
inside at least 36 different foreign broadcast organizations in 20 countries,
and that these facilities are located not just in Great Britain and Germany but
in numerous less developed locales, affirms a need for further investigation.
The Discussion argues that while many U.S. scholars have taken a lead in
understanding important changes affecting the media abroad, those engaged in the
study of TV news should not persist with a "fortress America" perspective.
Matters in TV news long studied and debated in the U.S. have relevance now
because they may operate all over the world.
Magid and AR&D are the two largest of about seven U.S. news consulting firms
that started in the 1960s and 1970s by selling research to local television
stations before gradually expanding into other news media. Still catering
mainly to local TV stations, Magid and AR&D together currently list about 250
domestic clients (Butler, 1988) and spearhead a $50 million news consulting
industry (Dun and Bradstreet, 1990, pp. 95, 200). News consultants typically
sign clients to three and five-year contracts for a combination of advising and
research, the latter usually surveys that each cost around $50,000. The data
lead to recommendations aimed at helping each client newsroom maximize its share
of the audience and, thus, income. Importantly, news consultants do not limit
their advising to the submission of written reports to management but rather
maintain a physical presence inside their client newsrooms. They can counsel
newsworkers during periodic seminars, clinics, critiquing sessions, and
one-on-one interactions (Magid, 1996a). At their headquarters in the U.S., both
Magid and AR&D operate talent schools, where selected newsworkers gather for
specialized instruction (Bock, 1986, pp. 62-71). No client is obligated to
follow the recommendations, although compliance usually occurs because of the
high fees the recommendations and instruction command. While consultants
cannot dictate specific news content, they urge adherence to general story
topics, those demonstrated to be the most appealing, and they communicate these
preferences to newsworkers through a newsroom's managerial chain of command
(Berkowitz, 1994). Historically, news consultants have been in greatest demand
where two or more news media vie for the same audience, as is characteristic of
the U.S. system of television.
As late as 1983, this American system--with a multitude of
commercially-supported networks and stations and only one public outlet
(PBS)--was unique. With the exception of Italy, no other country then had more
than three television channels. Because of tight governmental controls most had
one-channel systems, and throughout the world government-supported public
services were dominant. Broadcast privatization, which Caristi (1996) aptly has
likened to the reallocation of a nation's resources, was a function of the
multi-national spread of videocassettes and satellite-delivered services in the
1980s. Because foreign governments could not control the distribution of these
new media, they were forced to reconsider policies that had constrained
television and protected the public channels (Chavance, 1994; Rondinelli, 1994;
Csaba, 1994; Heath, 1993). A turning point came in 1986, when the French
government sold to private investors its dominant public network, TF1 (Porter,
1993, pp. 61-63). Two subsequent developments in Great Britain and Germany
greatly expedited the current worldwide rush toward privatization.
In 1990, the British government as a means of generating badly-needed revenue
opted to put up for competitive bid the sixteen licenses of its commercial
Independent Television system. Although ITV already was private, a 1988 "White
Paper" commissioned by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher removed
virtually all previous restrictions. The Thatcher White Paper became a model
statement on public-to-private broadcast conversions and its provisions have
been emulated in many other countries (Home Office, 1988). In exchange for a
large, one-time-only franchise fee, ITV licensees were promised unprecedented
latitude for maximizing profits and for competing against Britain's two public
TV networks, BBC1 and BBC2. Eleven of the twenty-four companies that applied
for the ITV licenses in 1990 turned to the United States and hired Magid for
research and consulting that could bolster their bids. At the conclusion of
this franchise "auction," eight of the Magid-backed bidders were victorious.
Among them was a venture called Carlton TV, which claimed the London license
from Thames TV, previously the key ITV outlet (Davidson, 1992, pp. 221-240). At
present, twelve of the sixteen ITV units, which broadcast regionally, are Magid
clients.1 In addition, starting in 1992 Magid has served a London-based entity
called Independent Television News, a newsgathering consortium sponsored by the
sixteen ITV companies. ITN is responsible for the news seen on the main
national ITV network (Channel 3) as well as on a newer companion network called
Channel 4. Integral to the fortunes of ITN is a commercialized national
newscast in prime-time called "Channel 4 News," which was entered into indirect
competition with "The Nine O'Clock News," the prime-time newscast on
The other harbinger of privatization was the rise of democracy and the
institutionalization of market systems in the former Eastern bloc nations of
Europe. Germany, where the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized this change,
moved rapidly to deregulate what had been a two-channel public system in West
Germany and a one-channel Communist-based system in East Germany. After
reunification in 1990, the German government continued to respond both to
business interests seeking expansion in the region as well as to the demands of
citizens that more TV be available, the latter having been an impetus behind the
democratic revolutions (Frederick, 1993, pp. 234-236). The creation and
expansion of five new private networks began. The largest of these were RTL,
owned by the Luxembourg-based CTL, and Sat 1, likewise financed mainly by
non-German interests including Disney-ABC; both specialize in movies, sports,
and entertainment. Another entrant was a movie-oriented network called Vox.
The two other new ventures were RTL2, RTL's sister network, and a German-held
network belonging to the Kirsch conglomerate called Pro 7. Because RTL2 and Pro
7 were the latest and smallest entrants in an increasingly crowded entertainment
marketplace, both financed extensive commitments in news and placed national
newscasts in head-to-head competition. In 1994, CTL hired AR&D for research and
consulting that could give the RTL2 newscast, "Action News," an advantage over
the competing newscast, "Nachrichten," on Pro 7.
Thus is Great Britain, the newscast on BBC1 competes in prime-time with the
newscast on Channel 4, produced by ITN, the Magid client. Similarly in Germany,
the Pro 7 newscast opposes the nightly news on RTL2, the AR&D client.
Structurally, these four news programs have many similarities. The British and
German newscasts all appear in prime-time (Channel 4 at 7 p.m., BBC1 at 9 p.m.;
RTL2 and Pro 7 both at 8 p.m.), all contain roughly between fifteen minutes and
a half-hour of news (Channel 4's within an hour-long news-and-interview format),
and like network newscasts in the United States all work from identical national
news agendas. Further, they have comparable resources and can reach the same
number of potential viewers, nearly 100 percent in their respective countries.
But while matched in terms of these structural factors, audience ratings as of
mid 1995 suggested quite different internal priorities. In Great Britain, BBC1,
with a 32 percent share of the audience, had three times the viewership of
Channel 4, which drew about 10 percent (IP Groupe, p. 350). In Germany, where
twice as many networks as the UK results in smaller shares, Pro 7 drew 9 percent
of the audience and was far ahead of RTL2, which had 3 percent (IP Groupe, p.
Because of confidentiality provisions, the exact role of the two consultants in
Great Britain and Germany has remained unclear. Officially, Magid was enlisted
by ITN as an advisor to programs appearing on Channel 3, not Channel 4, although
a larger role was suggested in press reports linking Magid to format changes on
numerous ITN productions. In the followup interviews, Magid representatives
conceded a wide range of responsibilities and that their recommendations to the
ITN newsroom were implemented by both British networks (Joe George, personal
communication, July 17, 1996). Similarly, AR&D was hired by CTL-RTL for
consulting at its broadcast center in Luxembourg. Followup conversations with
AR&D representatives in the United States, however, confirmed ongoing travel
itineraries between Dallas and Munich, the location of the RTL2 studios and
newsroom (Elizabeth Anderson, personal communication, July 28, 1996; Ed Bewley,
personal communication, July 2, 1996). Although the presence of the consultants
in the ITN and RTL2 newsrooms was established, little more about their specific
activities was disclosed. Yet because the Magid (Channel 4) and AR&D (RTL2)
clients were underperforming in the ratings, they were likely candidates for
strategies news consultants in similar situations are known to have advanced in
the U.S. Although strategies vary, they have been shown to be uniform in at
least one key respect: the handling of individual news stories. Moreover,
consulted newscasts frequently have been identified by just four news story
characteristics: length, mode of presentation, geographical orientation, and
Consultants are known to favor short stories. Compressed news stories, which
enable more items to be presented, result in faster-paced newscasts, pace, in
turn, a presumed viewing attraction (Mayeux, 1991, pp. 358-361). Manipulating a
story's mode of presentation is another means for achieving a more appealing
pace. News on television, unlike worded stories in print, can assume one of
several "formats." The simplest and most conventional formats are the "reader,"
in which a news anchor appears on the screen and merely reads out loud written
information, and the "interview/soundbite," in which newsmakers appear and
essentially serve the same "talking head" function. Consultants, however,
reject "talking heads" and are known to favor additional formats because of
their conduciveness to compressed content, visualization, and personality
projection. The three most common consultant-backed formats are the "voice
over," in which an anchor narrates a visualized video clip; the "package," in
which an on-camera field reporter in a longer segment similarly narrates
visuals; and the "live remote," in which a reporter appears live from the scene
of a news event and converses with the anchor (Shook-Lattimore, 1992, pp.
160-162, 277-282; American University, 1979, pp. 21-23). Another presentation
mode advocated by consultants is the "tease," not a news story per se but
nonetheless a content component that previews upcoming items (Rickel, 1995, pp.
Impacting more directly on actual news selection is the geographical
orientation of news stories. Owing to their roots in local news media,
consultants are known proponents of localism and strongly encourage news that is
"close to home" (Jacobs, 1990, pp. 29, 58). Although internationally
consultants are involved not in local but in national newscasts, there is
nothing to indicate that a similar local philosophy would not prevail.
Consulted newscasts in Great Britain and Germany would be expected to favor news
from inside those two countries rather than from other European countries,
elsewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere, and the rest of the world. Further,
consulted newscasts should feature a preponderance of national news not strictly
from the capitals and major cities such as London, Berlin, and Bonn, but from
outlying regions where the majority of viewers reside.
Expectations for story topic, the most direct news selection criterion, should
follow somewhat similar priorities. Consultants reject news that is remote and
abstract to viewers and favor stories which are proximate, timely, interesting,
and gut-level, and which most fit the description of "news you can use"
(Berkowitz, 1994; Hardman, 1990). Topics exemplifying the former include
government, politics, national business and the economy, education, distant
wars, and disasters; these should receive diminished treatment on consulted
newscasts. In contrast, topics consulted newscasts would be expected to stress
include crime, personal economic matters, health, human interest, weather, and
sports (Berkowitz, 1994; Peale-Harmon, 1991; O'Donnell, 1978). Crime news,
which includes crimes against people, arsons, manhunts, prison escapes, and
ongoing law enforcement investigations, is believed to evoke not just interest
but personal attention because of concerns among viewers that they might be
victims (Jim Willi, AR&D, personal communication, October 9, 1995). Personal
economic matters, health, human interest, weather, and sports are explained in
terms of their proximity to viewers and/or the capability for directly affecting
a viewer's lifestyle. Further, these topics assume core viewership in middle
and lower socio-economic strata, where the majority of regular TV viewers reside
In addition to news stories, several other elements which can loosely be called
"aesthetic" factors should further distinguish consulted newscasts. These would
include male-female "co anchors," extensive use of electronically-generated
graphics, intimate living room-like studio sets, specialty reporters, and the
application of accompanying musical themes. Potentially a key discriminator is
the regularity by which individual newscasters are seen. Non-American newscasts
traditionally have employed rotating teams of "presenters," in which a different
newscaster is seen each night. In contrast, consulted newscasts would be
expected to have a fixed and regularly-appearing "anchor," as this time-honored
American practice is deemed elemental toward fostering viewer response (Allen,
To test these expectations, the study established the following research
RQ1: Relative to those with no consultants present, do consulted newscasts in
Great Britain and Germany stress short stories and devote more time to modes of
presentation that include voice overs, reporter "packages," live remotes, and
RQ2: Do consulted newscasts devote relatively more time to national news
subject matter, particularly that with a regional character, and less time to
news from the rest of the world?
RQ3: Do consulted newscasts devote relatively more time to tangible and/or
gut-level topics such as crime, unrest, weather, and health, and less time to
more abstract or distant topics such as politics, government, and war?
RQ4: Do consulted newscasts, relatively speaking, feature a preponderance of
aesthetic elements that might further suggest any influences the consultants may
To address the first three research questions, the study adapted a methodology
introduced in 1978 by O'Donnell and advanced in 1991 by Peale and Harmon in
projects that examined the effects of news consultants on local TV newsrooms in
the United States (O'Donnell, 1978; Peale-Harmon, 1991). Stipulating that the
most valid method for measuring consultant influences was by direct observation
of consultants, these researchers conceded that because of proprietary
restrictions that rendered observational opportunities impossible measurements
could be facilitated indirectly by a content analysis of opposing newscasts--one
in which news consultants were present, the other in which they were not. That
this method presupposed the non-consulted newscast as a baseline was a
justifiable assumption given much evidence in the United States that similar
groups of newsworkers tend to "think alike" unless acted upon by an outside
force (Robinson-Levy, 1986, pp. 211-219; Harmon, 1989). The current study was
conducted in the U.S.; most of the analyzed material was acquired through
satellite receivers at the AR&D consulting complex in Dallas, some through an
associate in Europe who recorded and shipped off-air recordings. Two seven-day
survey periods, one for each of the countries, were specified. Analyzed were
the RTL2 and Pro 7 newscasts seen in Germany between September 28 and October 5,
1995, and the BBC1 and Channel 4 newscasts televised in Great Britain between
January 28 and February 3, 1996.
Only news stories and parts of the newscasts relating to the stories were
coded. Commercials, promotional segments, musical interludes, and closing
credits were excluded. Also excluded were long interview features of up to
fifteen minutes in duration that appeared in Channel 4's hour-long newscast.
Minus mainly the commercials, the two German newscasts carried about fifteen
minutes of news nightly. Being non-commercial, each half-hour BBC1 newscast
carried close to thirty minutes of news. Minus the commercials and the
interview features, each Channel 4 newscast also contained about thirty minutes
of news. The teases, a mode of presentation criterion, were broken down for
inclusion in the geographic and topical analyses.
Story length was assessed with a procedure nearly identical to that of
Peale-Harmon, who for reference reported each newscast's shortest and longest
stories and then divided the total amount of examined airtime by the total
number of stories. Compared was the result, a simple average story length for
each of the four news organizations. Assessing mode of presentation was a
similarly straightforward procedure of identifying readers,
interview/soundbites, voice overs, packages, live remotes, and teases, and
comparing the amounts of time devoted to each. The assessment of geographic
orientation paralleled but necessarily diverted from the procedure of
Peale-Harmon, who analyzed strictly local newscasts. While important was
preserving a set of geographic categories that progressed from the most to the
least proximate, national newscasts required different variables. Stories with
the greatest proximity were placed in one of two "national" categories;
"national/cities" were stories situated in the national capitals, while
"national/regional" were stories situated in the interiors of the countries.
"National/cities" was regarded as a non-consultant criterion in order to
distinguish it from "national/regional," a highly likely consulted newscast
characteristic. Remaining stories were categorized based on whether they were
situated in other EC countries, elsewhere in Europe, elsewhere in the Eastern
Hemisphere, or in the Western Hemisphere. Although a case could be made that
because they are not proximate stories from the Western Hemisphere would not be
recommended by consultants, it seemed likely that because the consultants are
from the Western Hemisphere they would encourage stories from that part of the
world. Because past literature gave no indication either way, Western
Hemisphere stories were considered a consulted newscast trait. As had been true
in the previous studies, a few stories had more than one geographic focal point.
In such cases, a determination was made based on which geographic locale was
treated for the greatest length of time in the item. Comparisons were based on
time increments and reported as percentages.
The assessment of story topic closely followed the framework developed by
Peale-Harmon, in which items were placed in one of eleven content categories.
To reflect the national orientation of newscasts here, part of this framework
was adapted. News about foreign wars was included in a category Peale-Harmon
had called "disasters." An additional category called "unrest" was added; in it
were placed stories about labor unrest, strikes, and protests, which, if they
had appeared, probably were included in the "government" or the "national
economy" categories in past studies. Because stories about unrest were
proximate and gut-level, they were considered a consulted newscast trait. The
final topical framework included the non-consulted topics of government,
politics, national economy, disasters-wars, and education; and the consulted
topics of crime, personal economy, health, human interest, sports, and weather.
In cases where stories reflected content in more than one category, such as a
report on health policy that involved the actions of government, a determination
was made based on the overall thrust of the item. Stories on government were
defined as those that focused on governmental procedures and reforms or dealt
with policy debates covered extensively in a parliament, a council, or a similar
To address the final research question on aesthetic elements, the study
departed from quantitative analysis and relied on description. Taken into
consideration in the viewing of the twenty-eight newscasts formally analyzed,
and about sixteen additional newscasts adjacent to the survey periods that were
not part of the formal analysis, were the noted non-content factors that had
identified consulted newscasts in past studies. Simply put, the goal was to
assess the extent any of the programs, particularly those of the consultants,
discernably looked like local newscasts seen in the U.S. In addition to
aesthetic devices, attention was given to whether the news organizations relied
on rotating "presenters" or employed a fixed and regularly-appearing "anchor."
The purpose of the content analysis was to determine if differences that may
exist in the handling of news stories by consulted and non-consulted news
organizations in Great Britain and Germany can be explained by the presence of
news consultants. It was proposed that characteristics in news coverage that
resembled patterns observed among consulted newscasts in the U.S. were
indicative of the consultants' presence. Although expected results were not
achieved in all cases, most of the findings indicated that U.S. news consultants
do impact newscasts in the two countries.
Because of preceding evidence that consulted newscasts carry shorter news
stories than their consulted counterparts, an analysis of story length was
conducted. In both countries, results fit the expected patterns. As can be
seen in Table 1, the Channel 4 newscast in Great Britain, consulted by Magid,
had an average story length of one minute, one second; this compared to one
minute, nineteen seconds on BBC1. Similarly in Germany, the AR&D-backed
newscast on RTL2 limited stories to an average of 47 seconds, much shorter than
the nearly one-minute time frame allowed by Pro 7. Contradicting this outcome
were several very long items on Channel 4, including one of seven minutes in
length that was more than twice the duration of BBC1's longest item. Still,
both RTL2 and Channel 4 had the greatest number of items, and thus the shortest
items, and this fit the pattern established in past research on consultants.
The analysis of mode of presentation, seen in Table 2, produced mixed results.
Here it was proposed that consulted newscasts would carry more voice overs,
reporter packages, and live remotes, while non-consulted newscasts would hold to
readers and interview/soundbites, the so-called "talking heads." While Channel
4, as expected, had half as much reader material as BBC1 (7 percent to 16
percent), it nevertheless carried three times as much interview/soundbite
content (14 percent to 3 percent). Moreover, the dominant format on both
British newscasts was the package, a trait of consulted programs. Unexpectedly,
almost three-fourths of BBC1 newscasts were comprised of packages, with only 55
percent of the Channel 4 content conveyed through this technique. While the
preponderance of long interviews would tend to suggest minimal consultant
influence at Channel 4, closer examination of Table 2 revealed that that network
devoted 12 percent of its newscast to teases, far and away the largest
proportion of any of the four analyzed newscasts and strong evidence of the
consultants' presence. In Germany, the overall results were even more
definitive. RTL2 devoted only 18 percent of its news to the two "talking head"
formats, compared to 40 percent at Pro 7. Further, RTL2 carried three times as
much voice over material and a larger proportion of packages (48 percent to 40
percent) than its non-consulted competitor.
The analysis of geographic orientation more clearly suggested the presence of
consultants at RTL2 and Channel 4. As Table 3 shows, Channel 4 scheduled more
"national/regional" and fewer London-based stories than BBC1. In addition, a
marked proportion of Channel 4's news, 11 percent, emanated from the Western
Hemisphere, a finding that might further indicate an American influence. In
Germany, RTL2 devoted almost one-half of its content to national/regional
developments and used only 17 percent of its airtime to report happenings in
Berlin and Bonn. In contrast, Pro 7 directed only 23 percent of its coverage to
the regions and devoted almost one-third of its airtime to events in the major
cities. Like Channel 4, RTL2 gave not overwhelming but marked notice to news of
the Western Hemisphere; stories from America outnumbered stories from the nearby
EC countries by almost a two-to-one margin. Notable was the newscast of October
4, 1995, in which RTL opened with a series of reports from Los Angeles on the
acquittal of former U.S. football star O.J. Simpson, who had been on trial for
murder. Differently, Pro 7 carried only one short item on the Simpson verdict.
While Western Hemisphere news was prominent, its proportion nevertheless was
very small relative to national news of both types. That by a ratio of six to
one national news exceeded Western Hemisphere news on all four networks would
tend to question the prominence of American news "flow" into these two
The analysis of story topic further pointed to the consultants' presence. In
Great Britain, the non-consulted network excelled in non-consulted topics, and
the consulted network excelled in consulted topics, in 8 of the 12 items. In
Germany, this was true in 11 of the 12 items. A key item was government, a
subject consultants are known to disfavor. As expected, only 6 percent of the
Channel 4 newscast and only 7 percent of the RTL2 newscast was concerned with
government; this compared to 16 percent at BBC1 and 26 percent at Pro 7.
Unexpectedly, though, the consulted newscasts featured a relatively high
proportion of political news (14 percent on Channel 4, 10 percent on RTL2), and
they did not emphasize weather to the levels indicated in past research
performed in the United States. Still, RTL2 devoted substantial proportions of
its newscast to human interest (17 percent), crime (16 percent), and sports (11
percent), while one-third of Channel 4's news consisted of unrest, health, and
human interest. While the proportion was small, Channel 4 and RTL2 were the
only networks to have carried reports on personal economic matters. The
prominence at Channel 4 and RTL2 of crime, unrest, health, and human interest,
indicating at the consulted newsrooms a priority for proximate information
and/or "news you can use," definitely fit the anticipated pattern.
The final research question relating to aesthetic elements called for a
descriptive assessment of the four newscasts. As expected, differences in the
styles and on-air "look" of the various programs were pronounced. Essentially,
the non-consulted newscasts on BBC1 and Pro 7 maintained a conservative approach
that in some ways resembled "The Newshour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS in the United
States. In contrast, the newscasts on Channel 4 and RTL2 were laden with
aesthetic elements and featured an approach that was more eye-catching, urgent,
immediate, and personable. Attention was given to the regularity by which main
newscasters appeared. As expected, both BBC1 and Pro 7 featured different
newscasters and otherwise adhered to the European "presenter" system, although
at BBC1 the assignment was rotated between just two figures, Michael Buerk and
Peter Sissons. Also as expected, Channel 4 and RTL2 had adopted fixed and
regularly-appearing newscasters, an indication they had been swayed into
adopting an American-style "anchor" system. A further indication of this was a
male-female anchor arrangement, consisting of Jon Snow and two alternating young
women, Zeinab Badawi and Dalgit Dhaliwal, on Channel 4. The RTL2 newscast was
anchored by a figure named Nicola Sengelmann. Although all four newscasts
demonstrated state-of-the-art technical sophistication, the consulted versions
had a far greater number of electronic graphics, visual effects, and picture
manipulations. Particularly visible were differences in the newscasts' studio
settings. Viewers tuning to BBC1 saw before a panorama of dark blue a huge
studio desk large enough to seat 10 newscasters, although only one appeared. In
contrast, viewers to Channel 4 saw a more intimate setting, in which the anchors
while not side-by-side were in close proximity. In terms of the aesthetic
devices, the most conservative of the four newscasts was that of non-consulted
Pro 7, which rarely showed the entire studio and stressed instead a
head-and-shoulder view of the presenter, this seen virtually for the entire
duration of the newscast. The boldest design was that of AR&D's RTL2, which had
established a red, white, and blue color scheme, a background diorama containing
a multi-colored map of the world, and a five-piece modular studio, lit from
underneath, that permitted the main anchor to interact with other individuals.
In its outward appearance, RTL2's "Action News" was indistinguishable from local
newscasts in the United States.
The further explore factors that might have contributed to the results and to
learn more about the overseas activities of the U.S. news consultants,
interviews were conducted with representatives of Magid and AR&D as well as with
McHugh & Hoffman, the third consultant although without a client examined in the
content analysis. Additional input was obtained from employees of RTL, ITN, and
other overseas news organizations that had hired consultants. While timely
information came from RTL, the ITN contacts proved less fruitful as it was
learned that just prior to the content analysis Magid's contract with ITN had
lapsed and that ITN had chosen not to renew it. Although Magid continues to
consult regionally for ITV, the parent of ITN, the loss of the national ITN
contract enabled Magid to assume a small role within the BBC, an organization
that at the time of the content analysis was non-consulted. Some implications
from these newer developments in Great Britain are treated ahead.
A major objective of the followup investigation was mapping the extent of the
consultants' overseas outreach. As near as could be determined, the three firms
have contracts with 36 broadcast entities in 20 different countries. In
addition to RTL in Germany, AR&D consults for RTL4 and RTL5 in The Netherlands,
RTL-Lorraine in France, RTL-Luxembourg, RTL-TV1 in Belgium, and the Prime
Network in Australia (AR&D, 1996). From its base in London, Magid consults for
a regional unit of the BBC, the twelve regional ITV companies, Antenna 1 TV in
Greece, Tel-Ad in Israel, TV2 in Norway, and MTV3 in Finland. Magid's Kuala
Lumper office coordinates consulting for RCTI in Indonesia, BiTV in India, Mega
TV and TV3 in Malaysia, and the Ten Network in Australia (Magid, 1996b, p. 9).
McHugh & Hoffman consults for Tele Nova in the Czech Republic, 1A in Germany,
Media Pro in Romania, Pro Plus in Solvenia, Gravis Television in the Ukraine,
FR3 in France, TV Nova in Portugal, SBT in Brazil, and TeleOnce in Puerto Rico
(John Bowen III, personal communication, April 15, 1996; McHugh & Hoffman,
1994). In early 1997, AR&D was negotiating a contract with Channel 5, a new
British network expected to begin operations in March 1997 (Elizabeth Anderson,
personal communication, July 28, 1996). Although Magid was the only firm with
divisions based abroad, AR&D was planning an office in Paris and McHugh &
Hoffman was considering offices in Berlin and Sao Paulo.
The consultants were quite open in vouching for the findings reported in the
content analysis. They related ongoing contacts with newsworkers at their
clients overseas; spoke broadly of recommendations for shorter stories and
soundbites, visualized material, and proximate news coverage; and insisted these
actions were supported by the research, mainly surveys and focus groups, they
had performed in the respective countries. While conceding that many of the
consulted programs do "look American," the consultants denied the exportation of
a "magic formula" and maintained that newer provisions in overseas newscasting
are those preferred not just by Americans but by indigenous audiences in foreign
countries. As AR&D's Ed Bewley related, "We came to Europe because of our
research experience. Prior to this there was no need for research because there
was no competition . . . [But] once privatization hit, clients knew they had to
have a channel of communication with their audience." According to Bewley,
average viewers in Germany and other locales did not favor what they perceived
as "stuffy, cold, [and] detached" newscasts (personal communication, June 10,
1996). More specific were the observations of Brent Magid, who speaking from
London noted that at the time of his arrival in 1991 TV news in the UK had
changed little in thirty years. "You saw an older man read news stories with
few visuals or production effects," he stated. Rather than with "warmth and
interest," program elements such as "segments [that] concluded with 'End of Part
One,' 'End of Part Two,'" repelled viewers, according to Magid. "The first
thing we did when we got here was to go out and ask the people whether they
preferred newscasts that were livelier, more human, and gave you more of a
reason to tune in." The affirmative responses coupled with steadily increasing
news ratings, maintained Magid, "have started to alter the concept of TV news in
every country we have entered" (personal communication, October 9, 1995).
Although the ratings gains at Great Britain's Channel 4 actually have been
modest, Magid claimed considerable proprietary success after helping reformat
ITN's evening national news and morning breakfast news on the main ITV network
(Channel 3). Meanwhile, AR&D's German client, RTL2, recently has added
appreciably to its share of the audience, which stood at only 3 percent in mid
1995, just prior to the content analysis. In mid 1996, RTL2 had an average
audience of 5 percent, and a peak audience of 9 percent, and had narrowed the
advantage of its non-consulted rival Pro 7, which still had a 9 percent share
(Ratings and Programming: Germany, 1996). Yet it was further learned that the
most dramatic ratings increases have occurred not in the UK or Germany but in
developing countries where new private networks have entered into competition
with long-established systems that previously were state-run TV monopolies. In
Greece, the network called Antenna 1, which as a startup venture hired Magid in
1991, currently draws one-third of the total audience and about one-half of the
national news audience, while Greece's forty-year-old monopoly, ET, now
struggles with about 10 percent (IP Groupe, 1995, p. 132). Perhaps most
indicative has been the commercial success of McHugh & Hoffman and its client
Tele Nova in the Czech Republic. Two years after its sign-on in 1994, Tele Nova
commanded seventy percent of Czech viewers and had left the once-dominant
state-supported CT network with slivers of the audience (IP Groupe, 1995, p.
70). One of the highest-rated programs on Tele Nova is a McHugh &
Hoffman-consulted nightly newscast which features a male-female co-anchor
arrangement, a team of specialty reporters, and a person-on-the-street news
segment. "After the revolution," McHugh & Hoffman's Jacques de Suze related,
"the Czech people were crying out for access to the media. The vox populi
segment was the centerpiece of our recommendations at Tele Nova" (personal
communication, May 4, 1996).
Yet unclear is the direction attitudes toward U.S. consultants may take. Of
five overseas newsworkers contacted, none disparaged the consultants and all
were positive in their remarks. "The Americans try very hard and they help us
make the news stronger. They always have ideas and are easy to work with,"
commented Germany's Marion Gruntman (personal communication, December 19, 1995).
Gruntman, who was employed by Germany's 1A system at the time of the interview,
had had direct contact with both McHugh & Hoffman and AR&D. Another German
newsworker who asked to remain anonymous felt the American input was "necessary"
because "they are up to date." An ITN newsworker in Britain named Clive Jones
concurred: "Consultants are helpful because when you are close to a project you
sometimes can't see the wood for the trees. They often tell you things you
already know, but they can help you confirm your own prejudices and instincts"
(Miller, 1993). Vic Royter, a former RTL radio reporter subsequently elevated
into a managerial position in television, was particularly candid. Speaking
from RTL headquarters in Luxembourg, Royter noted RTL's restlessness with its
ratings and an initial "mistrust [of consultants] by the news members" when the
AR&D representatives first arrived. "We had never had any coaching, and we were
not used to the role-playing" and the other AR&D exercises "they said would help
us adapt to the people's needs," Royter recalled. But because the consultants
spent long hours working individually with staff members, "things got better."
Royter added that most of the discussions with newsworkers were keyed to
research AR&D had performed. Further, once relations had stabilized, a sort of
"halo effect" followed the consultants, this because they were Americans.
"Everybody asked, 'Why did you go to the States [for assistance]?' Then the
people realized, 'That's the country of TV,'" stated Royter (personal
communication, Jan. 31, 1997).
It was apparent, though, that those contacted were reacting to the newness of
the relationships and to the special attention many of them currently had been
receiving. As has been the case when American newsworkers have been queried,
those overseas did sense but could not explicitly articulate the commercial
imperatives that explained the consultants' presence. Nor did they blame
consultants for the job dissatisfactions and stresses some did feel, another
pattern that parallels findings in the United States. On the other hand,
relative to their counterparts in the U.S., newsworkers abroad appear to have
had fewer philosophical differences with consultants over news values.
Recalling more restrictive systems that previously existed, which apparently
caused journalists to assume a "pro-establishment" stance, some feel that
consultants by pressing new news values actually have liberated the news
One instance in which this was not the case apparently came at the beginning of
the Magid-ITN relationship in 1993. After succeeding with several
recommendations, Magid representatives met resistance after urging ITN producers
to reevaluate their heavy emphasis on government and politics. As Magid's
Charles Munro recalled, "When we arrived everything they covered were the
machinations of government. It was so extreme that we called their newscasts
'MPs parade.'" Magid's vehement recommendation that governmental coverage be
balanced by other types of news was not finally implemented until ITN's upper
management had intervened. Still, according to Munro, "We never saw a greater
difference between the priorities of a news staff and those of the research
respondents [than at ITN]. . . . We never said 'Don't cover Parliament.' We
told them exactly what the respondents had told us: 'Cover it in a way that
helps the viewer relate'" (personal communication, July 15, 1995). Although a
budget shortfall served as the official explanation, these tensions described by
Munro probably contributed to the severing of the Magid-ITN relationship.
Yet the underlying theme in all of these interviews was an expectation that
international news consulting, while new, is permanent. As Royter put it, "No
TV in Europe can now be allowed to operate without news consultants." Moreover,
at least for the foreseeable future, this expertise is certain to come mainly if
not exclusively from the United States. Further, the three U.S. firms appear to
be past the point at which their services are merely invited overseas, as all
report the first concerted sales activities. A more aggressive sales posture
should expedite further expansions, particularly given that new private TV
services, such as Britain's Channel 5, are projected in virtually every foreign
country. By all accounts, the consultants have acclimated to the fact that TV
news abroad is not yet as extensive or as publicly accepted as that in the U.S.;
the offering of not just news but financial, managerial, and technical advising
is an important reason the consultants seem assured an expanding foreign
clientele. Magid, in fact, anticipates that by 2010 one-half of all its
business will be conducted overseas. Representatives of all three consultancies
noted the fortuitous timing of these events, as Frank Magid, the founder of his
firm, summed up: "Our foreign clients recognized that there was no television
system more competitive than in the United States. We had been at the center of
that competition for thirty-five years. So it was quite apparent that those in
foreign countries would come to the United States, and to us, because we had the
research expertise they had to have" (personal communication, July 10, 1995).
Although its findings are preliminary, this study nevertheless provides the
first measure of understanding into a new and meaningful phenomenon in
international communication. In news, the prevailing model for assessing
American influence is information "flow," in which at issue is material
interpreted and generated in the U.S. that subsequently crosses international
boundaries through large organizations such as Associated Press, Voice of
America, and more recently CNN (Frederick, 1993, pp. 49-51, 127-131). There is
no model for the situation treated here, in which American advisors cross the
boundaries and establish presence inside foreign newsrooms. Propelled by
privatization, American news consultants currently operate in 20 foreign
countries and, as shown, have influenced news broadcasts in two. Granting that
Great Britain and Germany resemble the United States, it is significant that
U.S. consultants also have entered the less-developed countries where concerns
about American influences have been most acute. While scholars outside the
United States can benefit by insight into new factors that can influence the
handling of their news, a greater challenge faces their counterparts here, who
have tended to view the process of television as if the rest of the world did
not exist. The time-honored emphasis on Associated Press, Voice of America, and
CNN may in the end be meaningful because of a U.S. bias it exposes. In
establishing a relationship between market factors and the rise of the
consulting industry, past domestic studies have served an important purpose.
Yet at a time when more and more foreign countries rush to adopt a U.S. system
of TV, much will be missed if American scholars engaged in TV news research fail
to internationalize their views.
An important outcome was affirming the validity of past U.S. methodologies in
evaluating indigenous news broadcasts overseas. Studies of information "flow"
have been deep in the analysis of potential channels of communication,
comparatively shallow in bringing this down to the bottom line: what viewers in
foreign countries actually watch. As in the U.S., foreign viewers are kept
informed mainly by indigenous newscasts. Not only do these newscasts apparently
have the same components as those in the U.S., and thus are easy for Americans
to study. Researchers can proceed with increasingly assurance that limitations
here can be overcome. Difficulties encountered in acquiring recordings of
indigenous overseas programs, which resulted in a relatively small number of
analyzed newscasts, will be alleviated by the continued expansion of satellite
transmission. Of note in this regard has been the initiation of a U.S.-based
enterprise called Satellite Communication for Learning (SCOLA), which collects
and redistributes overseas newscasts by satellite in the U.S.2 The study's
major limitation, its indirect method for assessing the consultants without
access to their research reports, written recommendations, and advising
sessions, will remain the key obstacle. Still, the relatively high level of
cooperation exhibited by the consultants, including in the acquisition of the
newscasts, offers hope that the long-standing secrecy factor can be
One question that beckons is whether the spread of news consulting is another
manifestation of U.S. "cultural imperialism." This possibility emerged in
several findings, notably by the decision of RTL to title its newscast "Action
News," an American newscast name not even translated into German, the native
language. Such examples are indicative of media imperialism as defined by
Boyd-Barrett, who notes any "process whereby the ownership, structure,
distribution or content of the media in any one county are . . . subject to
substantial external pressures from the media interests of any other country
without proportionate reciprocation" (1979, p. 117). Still, the broader pattern
suggests that while American influences are in play something other than
imperialism may be at work. American news consultants neither facilitate nor
advocate the exportation of movies, entertainment series, or other entertainment
fare but rather function on site, usually with the express purpose of helping
foreign clients originate their own programming. Further, Magid, AR&D, and
McHugh & Hoffman were invited into these foreign countries; as their priority is
conquering competitors, not nations, they seem to display little that approaches
an imperial impulse. It is possible that the infusion of U.S. programs and
programming concepts, including those in news, no longer results from a type of
imperialism but rather from a demand for such programming by overseas TV users
who now have choice. Privatization, resulting for the first time in a
multiplicity of TV services, may have unleashed this demand, with the culture
and lifestyles of those overseas already more multi-national than many suspect.
As a concern born in the pre-privatization era of the 1980s, the notion of
cultural imperialism may require revision in order to meet the newer realities
of the 1990s. Further studies should address whether American concepts are
pushed into foreign countries, as many argue, or whether they are pulled there
by viewers, as the new competitive TV environment allows, and as the enlistments
of U.S. news consultants may indicate.
On a more microscopic level, much can be learned through more content analysis,
particularly of consulted newscasts in the less-developed countries, as well as
through attitude studies of overseas newsworkers. Unclear are the conditions
and the extent to which foreign TV journalists welcome news consultants;
evidence they unknowingly cleave to organizational and marketplace norms would
square with findings reported in the U.S. (Berkowitz, 1994; Harmon, 1989;
McManus, 1990), and this is meaningful. While consulted newsrooms should center
such research, not to be overlooked are the indirect effects of consultants on
non-consulted news operations. Examination of U.S. local newsrooms has
suggested that because of competitive expectations non-consulted newsrooms often
play "follow the leader" once a consulted newscast has been established
(Frankola, 1990; Norris, 1987; Barrett, 1975, pp. 98-103). Great Britain was
selected with this in mind. BBC1 was the world's first television network and
remains known for what Britons call the "up market" quality of its news
broadcasts. BBC newscasts examined here did keep with this serious, elite
tradition, but not nearly to the degree as BBC newscasts televised just five
years earlier. That the BBC has striven for a much greater popular appeal was
underscored here by news stories that were not much longer than those of the
consulted outlets, by its preponderance of visualized news content, and,
notably, by a relatively small proportion of government stories. It once was
not uncommon for BBC newscasts to carry nothing but governmental and political
news. While here government did emerge as the dominant BBC story topic, only 16
percent of its content fit that category. It is possible that by pressing a
more popular approach to news coverage in the ITV system, Magid could have
swayed like priorities at the BBC. This is because despite continuing as a
non-commercial public network the BBC no longer is sheltered from competition.
Indeed, maintaining high ratings against challengers like Channel 4 has become
crucial to the BBC, currently under political pressure to justify its use of
public money in a private and increasingly diversified marketplace (Wittstock,
1992). The opportunity to observe several non-news programs on the BBC, which
included an on-location celebrity beach show hosted by a figure named Ruby Wax,
a MTV-style rock music series called "Top of the Pops," and a prime-time soap
opera called "EastEnders" that serves as Great Britain's No. 1 program, suggests
that today's BBC bears little resemblance to the elite institution celebrated by
authors in the past. The same changes undoubtedly expedited that contract
between the BBC and Magid, previously an inexplicable development.
A final question simply is why techniques advanced by news consultants in the
end do increase ratings. A principal technique is the selection of fixed and
regularly-appearing news anchors, which at the urging of consultants cleared the
way for TV news "stars" in the U.S. (Bock, 1986). Further evidence of a
conversion from a European "presenter" system to an American-style "star" system
warrants considerable attention in light of the rearranged priorities and
escalating salaries that accompanied the latter in the United States. Scholars
have tended to reduce ratings-building techniques to show business elements that
detract from good journalism. It is possible, however, that such techniques
have utility in the minds of average TV viewers, who may have no other reason to
regularly tune to a nightly newscast because of the multitude of alternatives
available. Given the certainly that news consulting and privatization will
continue to expand, scholars should reconsider whether consultants anymore
pervert journalism or whether some worthwhile purposes are served.
While their affairs remain difficult to pursue, this study has turned yet
another set of findings suggesting that news consultants are situated close to
if not at the center of the TV news universe. The study further suggests that a
day may come when the term "universe" will have to be taken literally. News
consulting no longer is an American thing. With consultants moving abroad it is
important that scholars not be far behind.
1 Magid's ITV clients include Carlton, London Weekend Television, Good Morning
TV, Westcountry TV, Yorkshire TV, Central TV, Ulster TV, Tyne Tees TV, Grenada
TV, HTV, Anglia TV, and Meridian TV.
2 More information on SCOLA can be obtained by contacting Satellite
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Story Length of Non-Consulted and Consulted Newscasts
BBC1 Channel 4 Pro 7 RTL2
NonConsultd Consulted NonConsultd Consulted
Minimum 0:00:10 0:00:15 0:00:17 0:00:03
Maximum 0:03:43 0:07:18 0:02:37 0:02:15
Total Time 2:53:20 3:12:00 1:44:25 1:48:25
Items 137 198 106 138
Average Story Length 0:01:19 0:01:01 0:00:59 0:00:47
Mode of Presentation of Non-Consulted and Consulted Newscasts
(by percent of airtime)
BBC1 Channel 4 Pro 7 RTL2
NonConsultd Consulted NonConsultd Consulted
Reader-On Camera 16.2 7.0 15.2 14.4
Interview/Soundbite 3.2 13.8 26.1 3.2
Voice Over 6.0 9.7 11.1 31.1
Package 72.8 55.1 40.8 48.1
Live Remote 0.0 2.2 5.5 1.2
Teases 1.8 12.2 1.3 2.0
TOTAL AIRTIME 2:53:20 3:12:00 1:44:25 1:48:25
Geographic Orientation of Non-Consulted and Consulted Newscasts
(by percent of airtime)
BBC1 Channel 4 Pro 7 RTL2
NonConsultd Consulted NonConsultd Consulted
EC 16.7 5.3 10.8 9.2
Rest of Europe 3.0 8.8 13.8 8.6
Eastern Hemisphere 14.9 14.0 11.2 7.0
National/Cities 31.3 25.4 29.3 17.3
National/Regional 27.6 35.8 23.2 43.2
Western Hemisphere 6.5 10.7 11.7 14.7
TOTAL AIRTIME 2:53:20 3:12:00 1:44:25 1:48:25
Story Topic of Non-Consulted and Consulted Newscasts
(by percent of airtime)
BBC1 Channel 4 Pro 7 RTL2
NonConsultd Consulted NonConsultd Consulted
Government 15.7 5.8 24.8 6.6
Politics 6.3 14.1 10.0 9.7
National Economy 14.2 10.3 4.9 0.0
Disasters-Wars 12.0 13.2 21.9 16.7
Education 3.2 2.1 1.0 0.0
Crime 8.4 11.0 9.2 16.5
Unrest 10.3 16.4 6.0 6.1
Personal Economy 0.0 4.0 0.0 3.4
Health 7.1 8.4 2.5 3.3
Human Interest 7.0 7.7 5.1 16.7
Sports 6.9 3.4 2.7 10.9
Weather 6.1 3.0 10.3 7.3
Other 2.8 0.6 1.6 2.8
TOTAL AIRTIME 2:53:20 3:12:00 1:44:25 1:48:25