President John F. Kennedy is seen shortly before his assassination on Nov. 22, 1963. Associated Press
No, this piece isn't about the assassination and new findings about a possible second shooter but rather about how bad news, like war, makes money as people are morbidly curious and desirous to avoid being bored so capping on interesting tidbits, no matter how bad, is better then being bored, right?
Why this piece? Well, yours truly was one of the Satellite News Channel lead artists back in the 80's, a job that was really special as SNC was not only the beta test site of state-of-the art video tech now used by virtually every news station in the world but also, SNC was the precursor of all the 24/7 news channels running on air as we speak so ... the notion of bad news bringing in serious money to the news outlets of the world is a no brainer to me without question.
In journalism, bad news sells. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a famous industry catchphrase, which explains why violent crime, war and terrorism, and natural disasters are ubiquitous on TV news.
The fact that journalists and their employers make money from troubling events is something researchers rarely explore. But even if it seems distasteful, the link between negative news and profit is important to understand. As a media historian, I think studying this topic can shed light on the forces that shape contemporary journalism.
The assassination of John F. Kennedy 60 years ago offers a case study. After a gunman killed the president, television news offered wall-to-wall, nonstop coverage at considerable cost to the networks. This earned TV news a reputation for public-spiritedness that lasted decades.
This reputation – which may seem surprising now but was widely accepted at the time – obscured the fact that TV news would soon become enormously profitable. Those profits are due in part because awful news attracts big audiences – which remains the case today.
As televisions report news of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a woman weeps in a Sears department store in Levittown, Pa. Jack Rosen/Getty Images
It's all about the money ...
Shortly after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the TV networks demonstrated their sensitivity to the tragedy by canceling commercials and devoting all their airtime to the story for several days. CBS President Frank Stanton would later call it “the longest uninterrupted story in the history of television.” At one point, 93% of all U.S. TVs were tuned into the coverage.
Estimates vary, but the networks’ decision to forgo ads may have cost them as much as US$19 million – which is $191 million in 2023 dollars.
But no longer ...
Ultimately, the chaotic, cacophonous and confusing decade of the 1960s would end up launching the hyper-commercial media world we live in today. Chasing sensational investigative stories, such as Watergate and the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, would generate higher ratings and more advertising revenue, and turn broadcast journalists into national celebrities.
The original values animating network broadcast journalism at its inception would surrender to more lucrative formats. “60 Minutes” – a CBS News production – eventually became the most valuable network-owned programming property in the history of American television, and by the 1980s almost every local news station had launched its own “I-Team” investigations group.
End result ... Network 24/7.