TV News reporter Natalie Brunell at the ABC Los Angles anchor desk c/o WIkicommons

What TV News Can Learn From Netflix

Posted May 22, 2023
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Q: What do TV news and Netflix have in common?

A: They both appear on the same screen. They both tell stories.

Q: What is the difference?

A: TV News has critical information to deliver that is really important for people to know. Netflix doesn’t.

Oh yeah, one other difference. ABC News has 8.15 million viewers on any given night, the vast majority of whom are 65+. Netflix has 232.5 million subscribers, the median age of which is 35.

Why is that?

That’s because Netflix knows how to tell a story. TV news, as a rule, does not. Netflix crafts its stories around some basic rules of storytelling that have been around, tried, and tested, for about 3,000 years. Character, arc of story, and resolution. These are the things that hold people’s attention, whether you are watching them on a screen or hearing them told around a campfire.

In a recent OpEd piece for The New York Times, Dr. Anna-Lisa Cohen, a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University analyzed why we are glued to our TV screens for series like Succession, even if we already know the ending.

“The truth is, we are just as likely to get caught up in a story even when we know what is coming — perhaps because more significant factors determine our enjoyment of narratives rather than simply waiting to learn or guess their resolution. Humans are hard-wired not just to absorb facts but also to lose themselves in stories and attune themselves to the characters and plots unfolding on the screen.”

It is the last sentence here that is so very critical: “Humans are hard-wired not just to absorb facts but also to lose themselves in stories and attune themselves to the characters and plots unfolding on the screen.”

We are a species of storytellers. We have been since the first cavemen scribbled drawings of their hunts on the walls of the caves of Lascaux. We are addicted to stories. All of our major religions are basically stories we tell ourselves over and over: Moses parting the Red Sea; Muhammad rising to heaven from al-Aqsa; Jesus walking on water; Noah building his ark, and so on.

Storytelling is how we, as cultures, deliver important information — The Ten Commandments are the climax of the epic story of the Exodus from Egypt — so compelling that 3500 years later, we still remember it. Netflix gets how to tell great stories — Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones. You name it, you know it. These are stories that resonate with you because the attraction to stories is buried deep in our DNA.

What is news but stories? What is more reality TV than news? And yet, when it comes to telling news stories, we throw away all the lessons we have learned about how to tell a story, acquired over 3,000 years, and instead we revert to a 70-year-old format that does not resonate with people at all.

Imagine the Exodus story as told by CNN:

“Some are holding the Israelite leader, Mr. Moses, culpable for what seems to be the mass murder of every first-born child in Egypt. Joining us live from Cairo, Jack Perkins. Jack, what’s the mood over there at the Royal Palace?”

or Fox News:

“Mr. Moses says that these so-called 10 Commandments come from God, but how do we know that? Joining us in the studio, a representative of the Pharoah’s government who claims that this Moses guy is not even Jewish; an expert on calligraphy and stone engraving who says no way this is the finger of God, and a psychiatrist who says that Moses may simply be a schizophrenic who imagines he hears voices. We will also be taking your calls.”

Do you think that anyone would remember the story of Exodus after 35 days let alone 3500 years? And how many news stories from 35 days ago do you even remember?

When TV news was invented in the 1950s, it did not come with an instruction manual. God did not descend upon Rockefeller Center and say “Thou shalt have a reporter do a stand-up followed by a man on the street soundbites.”

TV news in those days was both complicated and expensive to produce. Broadcast cameras cost a fortune and they weighed a ton, and most stations had only a few of them, so they cobbled stories as best they could under very constraining circumstances.

Technology has changed, particularly with the iPhone where every reporter carries a broadcast-quality camera with them 24 hours a day, but the architecture of TV news stories has not. They are still made and still look the way they did in 1965. Audiences, however, have moved on.

The same people watching ABC World News Tonight are also watching Netflix, and they have an inherent expectation that the quality of the storytelling is going to be just as good — and of course, it is not.

But what would happen if instead of doing the same old predictable reporter stand-up, b-roll, interview, and sound bites you married Netflix or HBO storytelling to real news stories and great journalism? After all, most news stories carry the seeds of a great story — a character, a challenge, a response, and a resolution. Could you not then lock into what Dr. Cohen calls our hard-wired ability not just to absorb facts but also to be captured by a story?

For the past few years, we have been working with a number of local TV news stations in the US to try to do just that — to marry Netflix storytelling with great journalism and news. The results have been nothing but astonishing, and yet should not really be surprising. Almost every station that we have converted to this kind of news/storytelling has seen their audience engagement figures and ratings skyrocket. Many are now rated #1 in their markets, often coming from far behind.

As I say, the results should not be all that surprising. As Dr. Cohen will tell you, people are hard-wired to become deeply engaged in stories. We simply took news stories, which often have all the elements of a great movie — compelling characters, conflict, arc of story, and resolution and laid them out as, well, movies — not ‘packages’. No breathless reporter stand-ups, no man-on-the-street soundbites, no b-roll, and no sit-down interviews (have you ever seen a sit-down interview in Breaking Bad? Didn’t think so). Also no screaming font BREAKING NEWS! (Do you see that on Game of Thrones?)

Is this the future of TV news? We like to think so, and the numbers seem to bear us out. If anything was ready for a disruption it was TV news as it was formerly done. But this is not about AI or live streaming — this is just about the elements of great storytelling — and that has been true since the time of Homer and the Odyssey — a great news story in its own way, told in a most compelling manner.

“I’m standing here on the street corner in Ithaca asking locals how they feel about Penelope. Is she ever gonna finish weaving that tapestry? What do you think is going on? Hello, can I ask you a question…”


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