HBO's "The Newsroom" makes the case that Congress blew it at the dawn of the TV age when it came to the use of "public airwaves."
That’s when it was proposed that, since media companies had the ability to make millions of dollars from using the public airwaves, those companies should give up one hour of daily programming for an advertising-free newscast.
Of course, Congress or anyone else wouldn't have gotten it right anyway way back in the 1930s or 1940s. Who could have been prescient enough to foresee multiple 24-hour news networks, all of which would grab hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising and affiliate fee revenues.
"The Newsroom" series starts with veteran "News Night" anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) having a sort of revelation – he now wants to get away from boring soft stories like the latest iPhone or the return of McRib. He wants to do real TV news -- like how the Tea Party is changing -- which, we are told, isn't seen as the most entertaining type of TV news.
In an on-air editorial, McAvoy talks about how Congress should have made sure TV news was advertising-free because that would have given journalists the freedom to do their job based on the facts laid out before them.
The trouble is, this argument is kind of outdated. TV news hasn't been compartmentalized into one hour a day for a long time. It’s a 24-hour thing, not only on TV but on other digital platforms.
Considering how tough it is for senior media executives to squeeze out profits, the prospect of them giving up millions from their still-vibrant TV news operations isn't even a close consideration.
Each of the broadcast network news operations pull in anywhere from around $450 million a year in advertising revenue for CBS, to around $800 million a year for NBC. Mostly appealing to older viewers, news advertisers tend to be financial, pharmaceutical, technological or political-minded.
The irony here is that "The Newsroom" runs on a network that doesn't air advertising.
So far, we haven't felt the effects of advertisers in the show’s storyline, apart from "News Night" having lost some 7% in viewership since it changed over to more of a straight-news operation.
Leona Lansing (Jane Fonda), chief executive of the company that owns “News Night’”s network ACN (Atlantis Cable Network), might have something to say about this in future episodes.
Perhaps some advertising drama will come as part of "The Newsroom." If not, we'll realize this is not really ordinary TV. It's HBO.