'Un-Dumbing' The News?

As I write this I'm sitting in a London hotel with the TV tuned to a BBC News program.

Aside from the fact that -- as a Brit -- it's nice to be back and soak up the BBC approach to disseminating information, it's interesting to note that only today the Beeb announced that it is going to expand its news output in the U.S.

Bearing in mind the level of debate on the TV Board in recent months about the general tone and content of U.S. TV news (notably the apparent over-reliance on celebrity trivia, sensationalist approaches to tragedies and the lack of international news), it will be interesting to see how programming of the type many have said they would prefer will actually fare.

Currently BBC America is available in excess of 50 million homes via cable and also on PBS, so there is a good-sized market against which to monitor performance. But will the BBC approach translate into large numbers over here? I for one hope it will, as it provides me with the kind of news I grew up with, but a market of expats will never deliver the goods for this kind of investment.



Most people of my acquaintance in the U.S. -- including the younger ones, supposedly the reason for many of the nuances of TV news coverage that have been objected to in this forum in recent weeks -- speak well of the BBC, often making specific reference to news and current affairs when doing so (along with comedies and period dramas, of course!). This may suggest a basic level of goodwill. The BBC itself has demonstrated it is sensitive to the need to get the format and tone right for the American market rather than adopting a "this is how it should be done" approach, by bringing in a seasoned U.S. news producer as head, Rome Hartman.

The stated positioning is intended to place BBC News in America on the same standing as that of The Economist in the print realm. Because of the BBC's heritage, its journalistic reach as the world's largest news organization (it's in just about every country in the world) and the strength of the underlying brand, it just might achieve this goal -- perhaps due in part to its contrast with much of the competing news content (you won't find the personality-driven shock-jock approach to news on the Beeb).

While the BBC won't appeal to everyone or even a majority, that isn't really the point. If it can attract large enough numbers of sufficiently desirable demographics, it will have a very saleable commodity -- and expat BBC loyalists like me will have another dimension to our news options.

Who knows. If things work out well enough and the Beeb delivers high enough ratings, it may even end up influencing some of the output on other news programs. But that's probably just wishful thinking on my part. Still, any innovation that offsets the dumbing down of news should be welcomed. Let's hope the BBC succeeds well enough to become a permanent fixture.

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