Discovering "Joe Six Pack" content in television news: the hidden history of audience research, news consultants, and the Warner class model.

Author:Allen, Craig
 
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The recent opening of the papers and records of the McHugh & Hoffman news consulting organization is an opportunity to better understand content priorities in local television news. Local newscasting is criticized for a plague that Klite (1995) has termed "tabloidosis." The literature has one theory for its crime, car wrecks, kicker stories, and "news you can use," that newsrooms respond to audience ratings and thus deliver mass-appealing and salable news. "Degraded standards" mean "big numbers" and this "makes financial officers hum with delight," Gitlin (1993, p. 24) has explained.

Yet, seldom considered is the first part of this familiar syllogism. If degraded standards do mean news to most Americans, why is this true? It may be because standards are relative and differ between differing groups of people. A key juncture in the history of local TV news came when the first news consultancy, McHugh & Hoffman, introduced audience research in newsrooms. After decades of proprietary secrecies, works by Allen (2001) and Berkowitz, Allen, and Beeson (1996) were the first to publish examples of audience research that consultants had used in newsrooms. Apparent was the influence of focus groups and field surveys in the news "gatekeeping" process. For decades, viewers had "voted" on news subjects. The most popular content had set news agendas.

But also noted, and left for further study, had been two additional discoveries. Not only had the consultants' research been steeped in social class analysis. Those who had brought this to TV news had not been amateurs but "Chicago School" sociologists headed by famed theorist Lloyd Warner. To learn about TV news, they had drawn viewers from random samples that reflected the total population. Their purpose was to have each viewer define "good" journalism. Results came from the upper and upper-middle class--as well as from the lower-middle and lower class. What media authors have known as the "lowest common denominator," the sociologists had known as the bottom groups. That they had been included may suggest an explanation more penetrating than ratings for the lowest common denominator content many observe. The bottom groups had comprised two thirds of American society. When the research concluded, it is highly likely that the lowest common denominator would have comprised most of the sample.

The possibility that TV news reflects not ratings but the composition of society nevertheless remains loosely proposed. Still unexposed are the McHugh & Hoffman materials that are said to demonstrate class analysis. Peale and Harmon (1991) and Meehan (1990) discussed audience research as a mechanism that promotes, in Meehan's words, "the forced choice behaviors of the mass of television viewers" (p. 118). Whereas Kaniss (1991) further documented newsworkers' orientation to a "less educated and less affluent mass audience" (p. 103), and Speer (2000) confirmed a "mentality" that "your audience is Joe and Martha Sixpack" (p. 12), rarely have media authors approached either the theory from which their labels and terms are derived, or why, with the advent of audience research, "mass audience" standards did emerge.

What follows through further use of the McHugh & Hoffman sources is a historical account of the genesis of "science" in TV news selection. It covers the period between 1962 and 1971, when sociologists from the University of Chicago as a commercial pursuit established McHugh & Hoffman. Their ideas then contributed to a turning point in "downmarket" journalism called "Eyewitness News." The account suggests that TV news has vital roots in the field of sociology. The sociologists had been baffled that broadcasters felt they were providing public service with newscasts that appealed only to the 25% of viewers with college degrees. They had questioned extensive coverage of government and politics. The research had shown that newsrooms should get out of government halls and into the domains where majority viewers had lived. Seen through history are several matters worthy of contemporary discussion. Among these is the claim, exhorted by the sociologists, that TV news cannot satisfy "one" American public. Another is the claim that sealed broadcasters' acceptance of class theory, that by fitting news to the largest groups both profits and public service are achieved.

Background

News consultants are the main providers of the audience research and outside counsel that many broadcasters deem essential in maximizing the profits of newscasts. Hired by managers, consultants implement strategies inside newsrooms during interactions with news directors, producers, editors, and reporters. Although much of the public's news comes from consulted newscasts, rarely is the consulting process, which broadcasters deem a "trade secret," publicly disclosed. News consulting peaked around 1990, when three fourths of the 800 news-active local stations had consulting contracts (Butler, 1988). More recently, as the formation of large station groups brought greater in-house research and advising, outside news consulting became less widespread. Yet, several hundred stations remained joined to one of many nationally based consulting firms (Guensberg, 2000). The largest was Frank N. Magid Associates, which entered news in 1970 and recently consulted in 150 newsrooms (Magid & Associates, 2003).

The first of these firms was McHugh & Hoffman. It was founded in 1962 by former ad executives Philip McHugh and Peter Hoffman. At its peak in 1985, McHugh & Hoffman consulted in around 100 newsrooms. In 1999, McHugh & Hoffman was reorganized as Convergent Communication. Its materials became the property of former McHugh & Hoffman president John E. Bowen, who opened them to scholars the following year.

This firm is considered significant in the development of local television news for events around 1970, when it teamed with ABC local news innovator Al Primo in a maligned yet path-clearing newscast concept called "Eyewitness News." Much literature traces the spread of news consultants to the high ratings this concept achieved. Study was propelled by period authors, including Barrett (1975, pp. 89-112), Diamond (1975, pp. 87-109), and notably Powers, in his 1977 The Newscasters (pp. 66-77), who speculated that a "blueprint" devised by consultants lowered newscasts to same "mass" audiences as popular entertainment shows. Led by Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, and other eminent figures, critics assailed "Eyewitless News" for its "happy talk," "reporter involvement," and "action" visualization (Murray, 1990, pp. 386-387). A theme in subsequent studies was the acceptance of these "gimmicks" as standard newscasting techniques (Kaniss, 1991, pp. 102-113; McManus, 1994, pp. 57-84; Robinson & Levy, 1986, pp. 216-217).

Two questions have attracted scholars. First, did news consultants influence news content? McHugh & Hoffman denied editorial influence. However, content studies had shown that "gatekeepers" at consulted stations had deemphasized government and politics in favor of weather, crime, human interest, and problem-solving topics known as "news you can use" (Hardman, 1990; Maier, 1986; Peale & Harmon, 1991). Clear evidence came when scholars first examined the McHugh & Hoffman documents. Allen (2001, pp. 207-225) and Berkowitz et al. (1996, pp. 449-450) wrote of a "socialization" of newsworkers to years of focus groups and field surveys in which news content was tested. Gatekeepers learned to select topics most appealing to viewers.

Less resolved has been the second question: Were content influences decided by the same priorities that had led consultants to a mass audience? Little research in mass communication relates class divisions. The McHugh & Hoffman research is important for, as Allen (2001, pp. 41-51) has shown, it had been conducted by an applied research institute at the University of Chicago called Social Research, Inc. (SRI). Its Ph.D. directors had been students of social researcher Lloyd Warner, who had founded SRI in 1946 and whose volume of scholarly work in the 1930s was the first to document an American class system. News consulting began when Warner had encouraged McHugh and Hoffman to join SRI as "consultants" whose job was to sell research to broadcasters. Four sociologists conducted the first TV news research. They were Sidney Levy, later the head of sociology at Northwestern; Ira Glick, later a chair in sociology at Chicago; Lee Rainwater, later a professor of sociology at Harvard; and Richard Coleman, who later headed the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT.

Much literature in sociology, marketing, and the applied social sciences recognizes Warner and SRI. Under Warner, SRI became the first center of modern market research (Packard, 1957). Until its dissolution shortly after Warner's death in 1970, SRI had thrived during a post-World War II "organizational revolution" in which production and marketing were changed by SRI's inventions of the focus group and the "brand image" concept (Easton, 2001; Karesh, 1995). SRI also had pioneered demographic analysis. This had led from class analysis. As Coleman (1983) related: "The class concept won entry into the marketing discipline when the proposition that consumer motivations varied consistently by social class was set forth in the 1950s by 'the Chicago group'" (p. 269).

Familiar in sociology is the model Warner had proposed. In the first volume of his "Yankee City" series, Warner had established a division of Americans into six classes (Warner & Lunt, 1941). Two "aristocratic" upper classes comprised 2% of Americans. Next was a third elite group, the upper-middle class. It consisted of the then 12% of Americans who had finished college and who had salaried professional positions and above-average incomes. Below the upper-middle class and twice its size was the lower-middle class, comprised of those with some post-high school education...

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