Network execs remain optimistic at upfronts

Television and newspapers ostensibly have a lot in common. The first requires more attention to physical appearance, but at their heart both are communications media, and each faces a conundrum regarding what to do about free online consumption of their product that’s rocking their respective worlds.

Yet as a recent study observes, if newspapers have become the consistent, nagging voice of doom and gloom about their own profession, TV remains ever the sunny optimist.

Nowhere is TV happier than at the upfront presentations taking place this month. These events are basically an elaborate sales pitch, so it’s no surprise that programmers would accentuate the positive. Still, even TV news — despite its fondness for fixating on exotic threats — seldom turns its microscope inward or dabbles in self-reflection. By contrast, navel-gazing comes naturally to print folk, who can’t seem to get enough of wallowing in our collective misery.

The official-sounding reinforcement of this observation comes courtesy of the U. of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, which has stated the obvious in the way only major academic institutions can. Researchers analyzed the last nine years of newspaper and TV reporting to determine how often newspapers and TV focused on their particular circulation woes.

The final score: Newspaper stories that dealt with declining print readership: 900; TV news reports on declining TV news ratings: 22.

Those are the kind of results you’d expect if the Boston Celtics played a YMCA youth team.

So while newspapers specialize in self-flagellation, as the researchers put it, “It is not too great a leap to say that for all intents and purposes national television news has ignored its drop in viewership.”

Although story-count figures are an imprecise measure, they broadly underscore a telling point: With rare exceptions generally confined to non-news venues, a TV-only viewer would never know that ratings have dropped off appreciably from the days of “All in the Family” or “Bonanza.”

Television simply doesn’t second-guess, correct or criticize itself much. Ombudsmen don’t do prominent pieces on network evening newscasts or cable’s primetime, questioning how these channels conduct business. If anything, beyond sniping at each other (see Keith Olbermann’s “worst persons” segment), networks’ self-references are almost invariably flattering. Bill O’Reilly, for example, loves to tout how Fox News Channel crushes its cable competition.

Those in the broadcast-news business who chafe at the adulation heaped on “The Daily Show” by TV critics need look no further than this dynamic. The TV space is filled with talking heads, but so little introspection — so few voices questioning the tone, rhetoric and manner in which cable pounces on a non-issue — that Jon Stewart’s quizzical stare has become indispensable.

In a nutshell, the Comedy Central program amounts to somebody on TV surveying the noisy mayhem — the blanket “live” coverage of Miss California USA Carrie Prejean being allowed to retain her title after a ginned-up modeling-photo controversy — and validating that we’re not crazy by essentially saying, “Nope, this whole thing baffles us, too.”

The news divisions, of course, are pikers compared to their entertainment brethren in the glass-half-full department. In private moments, TV execs indulge in gallows humor, joking about holding a fracturing model together just long enough to get their kids through school. Scanning Nielsen tables they joke grimly that, thanks to inexorable ratings erosion, “flat” is the new “up” and “down 10%” amounts to holding one’s own.

At the upfronts, though, all is well in the world. New programs are filled with breakout stars and well-positioned to galvanize viewers. Each network, moreover, is poised to deliver the key audience that media buyers want — those upscale, affluent, fabulously educated people born after the Kennedy administration — in numbers no one else can match.

Sure, challenges exist, but they can be overcome — to hell with those fretful, hyperbolic naysayers. The future of network television is, in the final analysis, bright and rosy. Cue the cocktails and jumbo shrimp, and let the good times roll.

Come to think of it, maybe what newspapers really need is their own equivalent of the upfronts. Throw a big party. Granted, the good tidings won’t last, but why not fleetingly enjoy what unbridled optimism and bravado tastes like, even if the broad smiles are held together with greasepaint and makeup.

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