The Soap Operafication of TV News

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Hazel Joe

Should viewers watch television news with caution because it owes more to soap opera and propaganda?

Hazel Joe Year 2, BA (Hons) Broadcast Operations, 2012

In the UK, Television News is bound by a broadcasting code set by the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, Ofcom (set up in 2005). The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was established through its charter and an accompanying agreement guarantees its editorial independence and sets out its obligations as a broadcaster. The public service broadcasting BBC was founded in 1927 (under its Royal Charter) and is the oldest broadcasting company in the world. It has been a legal and political obligation for the BBC to refrain from expressing an opinion.

The BBC and ITN (Independent Television News), the company that supplies news programmes for ITV and Channels Four and Five respectively, are both legally required to deliver their news with ‘due accuracy and impartiality (Holland 2000, pp. 170-171). However, there have been 5 major changes to television news broadcasting which have affected broadcast television news. There are the internationally based, 24-hour continuous news from satellite and digital channels; the audience-driven tabloidisation of news: the move to cheaper, less professional news production and ‘job compression’; the growth of a public relations industry that provides its own highly partial interpretation of newsworthy events; and the Internet. In this latter-day communications Babel, journalists are by no means the only purveyors of information (Holland 2000, pp. 170-171).

Although respectively, the BBC and ITN news programmes are self contained news programmes, eg Channel 4 News broadcast at 7pm on weekdays and BBC News at Ten, BBC1 weekdays, there are also other forms of television news broadcast shows such as the ‘rolling update’ format. This was pioneered by Ted Turner’s CNN (Cable News Network), where 24 hour broadcasting required something different from the self-contained news bulletins of broadcast TV. This was generically innovative in 3 ways:

• Distension – each new element of a running story was taken as a separate story and by massively distending the story it prolonged the content of a paragraph to the length of a segment or even a show.

• Repetition – on the presumption that viewers watched CNN in segment length chunks, rather than continuously, it was also able to recycle the same material relentlessly often over several days.

• News-talk – CNN also pioneered news-talk, which was not the same as the established quasi-news format of current affairs. News-talk was the habit of introducing a story from the anchor’s desk, perhaps with a brief throw to the scene via taped report, and then returning at length to a studio discussion about the story, frequently with another employee or journalist, and occasionally a professor from NYU or MIT. This way, a one-and-a-half minute item could fill an entire segment (Creeber, p121).

It is important to know where television broadcasters obtain their news stories. News programmes look to a variety of different sources for the information that will become a news story. These are:

• News agencies, such as the Press Association and international news agencies, as well as local news agencies who collect and redistribute basic news items

• Stringers, or freelance journalists based around the world, who may be paid a small retainer

• The programme’s own correspondents based in major British cities and overseas

• Other news media, the press, radio other television broadcasts. Investigations done by an extended current affairs programme may give rise to a news item

• Public relations sources

• The Internet and the wide access it gives to individuals as well as organisations (Holland 2000, p. 175).

According to Creeber (2004 p. 115), the construction of news values is also influenced by more tangible forces outside of the news organisation such as (in addition to those mentioned above in Holland), the need to deliver large audiences to advertisers. Like other TV genres, the news is a form of representation (or, in semiology, signification) and the words it uses are like TV drama; the result of creative and interpretive processes (Creeber 2004, p. 109). With news programmes,

the audience tends to find stories interesting if they are human interest stories, show conflict or controversy, cover unusual happenings, cover events that are new and are happening now and are culturally and geographically relevant. These, and the news factors identified by Galtung and Ruge (1965) (cited in Creeber 2004, p115) and others (see also Ostgaard, 1965; Sande 1971; Tunstall, 1971; Bell 1991 – cited in Creeber 2004, p115) have been used to attempt to identify properties of news stories that audiences will find appealing and are likely to want to watch.

Television news events have news value if:

• they contain good pictures;

• they contain short, dramatic occurrences that can be sensationalised;

• they have novelty value;

• they are open to simple reporting;

• they occur on a grand scale;

• they are negative or contain violence, crime, confrontation or catastrophe;

• they are either highly unexpected, or contain things that one would not expect to happen;

• they have meaning and relevance to the audience;

• similar events are already in the news;

• they contain elite people or nations or they allow an event to be reported in personal or human interest terms.

               (Creeber, 2004, p. 115)

According to Creeber (2004, p. 110), researchers have used various qualitative methods to explore in some detail the way in which television news does impact on viewers. Iyengar’s research suggests that what he calls the ‘episodic’ framing of most news stories (which focus on events themselves rather than the causes or history of those events) makes it difficult to understand the social causes of issues like crime or poverty, and instead to attribute blame only to the individuals themselves (Iyengar, 1991, cited in Creeber 2000, p110); these findings are in keeping with studies by Lewis (1991, cited in Creeber 2004, p. 110) and Philo (1990 cited in Creeber 2004, p. 110) which suggest that television news can be important in creating or reinforcing fairly simple associations (such as Saddam Hussein with Hitler or striking workers with violence) that remain in people’s minds. Holland (2000, p. 173), states that analysis of the language and imagery of news broadcasts was part of the approach of both Birmingham University and Glasgow University respective media research units. John Hartley’s rigorous semiotic analysis underlined their importance. Journalistic ‘common sense’ – despite the reliance that journalists themselves put on it – needs to be subjected to what one news editor condemned as ‘tortured, hair splitting semantics’ (Harley 1982: 107, cited in Holland 2000, p173). Holland also states that John Fiske went on to argue that news creates its own narratives, with mythological heroes and villains. Long-running news stories are like soap operas. They can drift away from the world in which they claim to report and build up a narrative in which those who are reported on do not recognise themselves (Fiske 1987: 293, cited in Holland 2000 p173).

According to Creeber (2004, p. 108) a number of studies of news production have examined the political economy of television news. This involves exploring the role played by ownership and economic structures on news content. So, for example, the economic interests of the owner (or management board member) of a news broadcaster may be reflected in the kinds of stories that get told and on commercial television, the interests of advertisers with the need for the news programme to deliver an audience to advertisers in a buying mood may also be a powerful force in structuring the nature of a news broadcast because advertisers are interested in wealthier audiences.

Creeber (2004 p. 111) refers to the book Manufacturing Consent (1988), written by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, where the authors lay out what they call the ‘propaganda model’ of news production. The model suggests that the economic and ideological conditions in which news is produced means that only certain kinds of information filter through to an audience. They argue that information that suits the interests of powerful elites is favoured, whilst regularly filtering out things that might go against such interests. They identify, in particular, five filters involved in the manufacture of news:

• The first filter involved media ownership.

• The second filter is advertising.

• The third filter involved what they call sourcing. Journalists working to tight deadlines are dependent upon their sources for the information they report. Powerful interests, whether in government or business, are aware of this, and are able to invest heavily in public relations geared to giving journalists well-packaged information designed to meet their needs.

• The fourth filter they refer to as flak. This is when news threatens powerful interests, corporate-funded lawyers or advocacy groups are able to use their resources to make their voices heard and

• The fifth filter they refer to is ideology.

It is very important that we have a television media that we can trust. Casey et al state that ‘television news provides audiences with information about what are apparently matters of worldly consequence and certainly issues beyond “our” immediate realm. It tends to be central to the identity of television networks, with news bulletins sometimes referred to as “flagship programmes”‘ (2008, p. 183). News also plays an important role at key cultural moments such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or the Gulf war (Casey et al, 2008, p. 184).

With news journalists setting themselves up as a source of objective truth about events and issues (Cottle 1993, cited in Casey et al, 2008, p. 184), the viewing public has the right to expect impartiality and/or objectivity from television news journalists. This is the only way that we will trust television news. However, the viewers should remember that news like any other text, is a social construction that produces versions of any reality rather than an unambiguous truth. Viewers should be mindful that news items are not simply waiting to be discovered and gathered by journalists but that news is in this sense, manufactured according to the rituals and routines of news production rather than being a set of spontaneous events (Casey et al, 2008, p. 184) and that viewers should consume news with caution because it is a text and it involves decision making by humans who have their own filters, agenda and foibles and so therefore decisions are bound to be political. News is another form of story telling and is bound to have soap opera elements and even follow a 3 or 6 act structure because it involves people in deciding what you do and do not see and also has to be compelling to an audience, so yes viewers should watch with caution.


Bignell, Jonathon (2005) An Introduction to Television Studies, Routledge: Oxon.

Casey, Bernadette.,Casey, Neil., Calvert, B., French, L., & Lewis, J. (2008) Television Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd Edition ed.),  Routledge: Oxon.

Creeber, Glen. (Ed.) (2004) The Television Genre Book, The British Film Institute: London.

Holland, Patricia (2000) The Television Handbook (2nd Edition ed.), Routledge: London.

Illustration: Owner Diseased, c-type photograph by Dr Sara Andersdotter, 2009