10 Sneaky Ways ABC Is Boosting 'World News Tonight' Ratings (Guest Column)

Ueland_ABC_Boosting_Ratings_MAIN - H 2014
Illustration by: John Ueland

Ueland_ABC_Boosting_Ratings_MAIN - H 2014

Bait-and-switch teases, cellphone videos and even Hollywood special effects are behind the rise of David Muir at ABC, writes top news analyst Andrew Tyndall

This story first appeared in the Oct. 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.


Now that ABC's World News Tonight has all but climbed to first place in the evening news ratings race, David Muir, the new anchor, can expect an extra sampling from viewers unfamiliar with his journalistic stylings.

Needless to say, this is not your Peter Jennings newscast. Under ABC News president James Goldston, World News has cut back on international and political stories and introduced a sensibility closer to that of Good Morning America, complete with tabloid true crime, sports-and-celebrity coverage, news-you-can-use service journalism and buzz around social media. Unlike at CBS and NBC, World News offers a cable-news-style graphic that makes a story's headline visible even when the broadcast is on mute. In the month since Muir's arrival, his newscast's pace has quickened and its news hole has shrunk at the expense of teases and promos. For his "Instant Index" roundup of the most-viewed video online, Muir spends nearly half as much time before the commercial pod telling us what we are about to see as we actually enjoy with the ensuing reveal.

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The nightly newscasts initially were conceived as television versions of the news agenda found in major newspapers. To ABC's credit, it is trying to rethink its nightly news to make it medium-specific, news that can be uniquely found on television -- in other words, a video newscast rather than a newscast that happens to use video.

Some innovations are refreshing, others miss the mark, a few are frankly ridiculous. While they are not exclusive to World News, they are seen there more systematically. A sampling viewer should watch for 10 telltale tricks.

1. Actuality
The underlying event is not really newsworthy. Either something almost happened but was averted, or the event amounted to local news but had no national consequence. But it happened to have been recorded on video. It's news because there is something startling to see, not because something startling happened. Related audio actuality (911 calls, etc.) can get the same treatment.

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2. Bait and switch

Often the video of an event is not enough to sustain an entire package. Watch for a pair of techniques for spinning the story out: First, the use of "watch," whereby the correspondent rolls back the video to play it again, perhaps several times. Second, the bait and switch, in which we are told that the new video is similar to a previous, more serious story that was actually newsworthy.

3. Play one on TV
Cellphone video never will have the production values of fictional moviemakers. So watch for a news event being likened to a movie or TV series, so that it can be illustrated by star-laden footage. Related to the bait-and-switch phenomenon, sometimes a news story will be similar to something that happened previously -- to a celebrity.

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4. Self-promotion

The newscast needs to reassure its viewers that its newsgathering is of a sound pedigree. So World News mixes in file footage of an anchor's previous interaction with a newsmaker or showcases its own correspondents asking confrontational questions or includes a soundbite from an in-house expert like Brad Garrett (ex-FBI) or John Nance (airline pilot) in order to seem more authoritative.

5. People are paying attention
Completely nonscientific and unrepresentative popular reaction now can be obtained by quoting from Twitter and Facebook. It looks buzzy and gives the story an air of importance.

6. Reality TV
When Muir was a reporter, he was a master at inserting himself into the middle of a story. He's most famous for striding through factories high-fiving blue-collar workers for the "Made in America" series -- the journalist as central character in his own reality TV show. Now, Matt Gutman is partially filling Muir's shoes.

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7. Soundbite shortcuts
HBO's John Oliver had fun at 60 Minutes' expense with a montage of interviews with dramatically phrased, well-written soundbites -- except the bites all came from the correspondents' own leading questions. Muir takes no backseat to 60 Minutes. Related, see correspondents channeling Art Linkletter, sitting on the floor trying to get kids to say the darnedest things.

8. Korean storytelling
When video is not available, ABC relies heavily on its computer animation team to depict what they imagine the scene might have looked like. And to take viewers to far-away places, why use ABC's own cameras when Google Earth can do the job?

9. Special effects
To give video that little extra help to be compelling, music is mostly used for inspirational feature stories (check out ABC's "America Strong" series), black-and-white video for a sense of personal danger (along with handheld camera), and video game-style, lock-on-target clicks for foreign threats.

10. Verb mangling
Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley spotted the misuse of "-ing"-ending verbs more than a decade ago. That trend has found renewed favor at ABC, where reporters impart a sense of current urgency to past events by slipping in an "-ing" (example: Joe Biden's son is "testing" positive for cocaine). ABC's Paula Faris is loving it.

Andrew Tyndall is an independent news analyst.