Television and the Arts

Network News Coverage of Arts and Culture in the 1990s

Andras Szanto and Andrew Tyndall

National Arts Journalism Program, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 2950 Broadway, Mail Code 7200, New York, New York 10027, 212-854-1912.

The bad news is that there was almost no news of arts and culture on the evening newscasts of television's three major networks during the 1990s. News and features focusing on the entire arts and culture beat — defined as including movies, music, entertainment television, publishing, and the visual and performing arts — averaged less than thirty seconds per newscast during the decade. And most of that coverage focused on television and the movies.

The not-so-surprising findings are part of an exhaustive study for the National Arts Journalism Program. The study is based on work done by ADT Research which maintains a database of all stories covered by the three network weekday nightly newscasts since 1987 and publishes a weekly faxsheet monitoring network television news.

Although NAJP's 1999 study on Reporting the Arts: News Coverage of Arts and Culture in America did contain a brief chapter on television news coverage that made the same general observation, this report takes a closer look at what was — and was not — covered, offers some insight into why, and tracks trends during the decade.
Among the report's more interesting observations:

• ABC provided slightly more coverage of arts and cultural than NBC or CBS.
• The main controversies covered during the decade were not the high culture battles over Karen Finley or Robert Mapplethorpe but those over sex and violence on television and the violent lyrics in rap music.
• Television sex and violence was the arts and culture story that received the most network news coverage of the decade followed by the Academy Awards ceremonies, Michael Jackson's sex life, gangsta rap lyrics, and Frank Sinatra's obituary. No visual arts, performing arts, or publishing stories came even close to making the top ten.

The report closely analyzes coverage and also suggests reasons for the dearth of stories on fields such as classical music, poetry, and theater. They include the newscasts' focus on a mass audience, the unlikelihood of scandal and tragedy, and the lack of publicity machines generating “buzz.”

Although the report is thorough and contains some interesting data, it might have been more useful if it had been expanded to include the proliferation of network news magazine programs as well as CNN — all venues that, because of their expanded time frame, might prove more hospitable to news and feature stories on the arts.

Review by Deena Epstein, The George Gund Foundation