The evolution and practices of youth television news in
American journalism is a phenomenon driven by new
media technology and generations of viewers who primarily receive their news information visually. After the first
regular news broadcast, Tele-topics, on NBC in 1939, the
“television babies” of the four succeeding decades, and
their children, still rely on television news to learn about
their communities and the world. The monumental difference is how television audiences access news because of the
digital media revolution.
Most Americans born mid-twentieth century witnessed
the nation’s most volatile and iconic events—the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the civil rights
and women’s movements—through the abbreviated, visual narrative known as broadcast television news. And, whereas
the music of a generation often defines it, the stylized production values of MTV (Music Television) created by Robert Pittman provided the blueprint for youth television news
of the 1980s and beyond.
Premiering in 1981, MTV, celebrated and excoriated for
its exportation of Western pop culture through the music
video, used the narrowcasting technology of cable to target
the youth audience, opening the portal for global distribution of a visual, youth culture.
As its audience matured, so did MTV Networks, Inc. In
the 1990s, more news content began to appear along with
dramatic, reality, and entertainment shows. Topics for news
coverage included youth crime, teen violence, and drug use.
The network promoted voter registration and reported on
presidential elections from 1992 and 2004. The MTV Generation partied with aging Baby Boomers at a MTV-sponsored inaugural ball for saxophonist and president-elect Bill
Clinton, who, during a 1992 “Rock the Vote” forum, was
queried by a young audience member on his choice of style
Following the events of September 11, 2001, MTV began
offering more global news programming. In 2001, the network collaborated with CNN (Cable News Network) on
reports from Afghanistan by CNN correspondent Jason
Bellini to foster cultural exchange between American and
Afghani youth. The half-hour program “Confronting Iraq” in
2003 examined the possibility of another Gulf War, complete
with non-traditional editing techniques and rock music.
Taking full advantage of new media technology, MTV.
com, the Internet web site, included video streaming and
pod casts of interviews with music artists and public figures. The network had satellite channels worldwide.
The success of MTV to attract and hold the youth market
did not escape traditional broadcasters for long. In 1989,
WSVN in Miami, Florida, then recently affiliated with the
fledging Fox Network after being dropped by NBC, began
airing nightly, local newscast designed to hold the “short
attention spans” of eighteen to twenty-four year-olds. The
station led in the ratings for this age group, and placed second for all audiences in the city. Sunbeam TV Corp., which
created the format, duplicated it after purchasing the CBS
affiliate, WHDH in Boston, in 1994. The program thrived
in both markets despite the culture differences of the cities
and the parent networks.
Young viewers wanted brief stories, creatively shot
and tightly edited. They also required that the content be
relevant to their lifestyles, and reported by anchors and
reporters who looked and spoke like them. Producers had
to balance all of these factors without communicating news
that was too graphic in image, tabloid in content or commercial in presentation.
Growing an audience and talent bank was also crucial to
the evolution of the genre. Nick News on Nickelodeon, part
of the MTV network, first aired in 1991. Hosted by former
network correspondent Linda Ellerbee, Nick News was for
pre-teens and had a traditional news show format of four
to five information segments. Ellerbee often appeared oncamera in casual pants, and sneakers. Her company, Lucky
Duck Productions, also produced Nick News specials. Titles
included “Kids, Terrorism and the American Spirit; Faces
of Hope: The Kids of Afghanistan”; and the controversial
2002 “My Family is Different,” which featured children of
same-sexed parents. A program on the scandal surrounding
White House intern Monica Lewinsky and former President Clinton won a Peabody award. Its young viewers often
debated on the Nickelodeon web site, that the stories were
about adult issues, not what “kids” really cared about.
Channel One News, an in-classroom news program for
public schools, was criticized for its news content and its
inclusion of commercials in the twelve-minute newscasts.
Introduced in 1990 by Chris Whittle, the network contracted with over ten thousand schools in the United States
to air its broadcasts in exchange for television equipment
and access to its archive of educational programming. Critics claimed many of the ads were for consumer items that
were tied to soft news programming. Channel One was sold
to Primedia in 1994, and changed its broadcast headquarters from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in 2006. The
network boasted a daily teen audience of over eight million,
a Peabody award, and a 2005 Webby People’s Voice Award
for the Best Youth Site on the web.
Another school-based news program modeled after Channel One, Youth News Network, was initiated in Canada. Similar public and political opposition caused it to fold.
Channel One, which collaborated with MTV and CNN
often relied on news footage from networks such as ABC,
proved a training ground for young journalists who moved to
more traditional, mainstream television news. Past Channel
One correspondents included Lisa Ling, formerly of ABC,
and later with National Geographic Channel; Tracy Smith,
national correspondent for the CBS Early Show; and Anderson Cooper, anchor of CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.
Syndicated morning news program, The Daily Buzz
began in 2002 and rapidly became one of the most popular
three-hour, weekday news programs for American youth.
Its format was relaxed with quirky segment titles such as
“Dot Com Dish,” “Mr. Moviephone,” “Rumor Control,”
and “News by the Numbers.” A correspondent who often
danced to a clip of pop music reported news on the quarterhour during the “Plugged into the News” segment. Owned
by ACME and Emmis Communications the program’s flagship station was WBDT in Dayton, Ohio. Syndicated in
more than 139 markets affiliated with the former WB, now
the CW network, it reached 39 percent of American viewers from the 6:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. time slot. The show was
produced in 2006 in Orlando, Florida, and the program’s
web site was a panopoly of Internet connectivity including
a link to the program store.
The television news journalists of the twenty-first century will come from today’s new media users. The technology—satellite, viral video (video clips shared over the
Internet), podcasting—evolved at a rapid pace, and innovation was usually a young person’s game. Web stars were
made…and faded daily. Amanda Congdon (1981– ), dubbed
“The Web’s Anchorwoman,” co-created the video podcast Rocketboom in 2004. The daily news show has a comedic
edge and had a strong Internet following. TiVO, the leading
brand of digital video recorders, offered Congdon and coproducer Andrew Michael Baron a distribution deal in the
millions. Congdon left the show in 2006.
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Hendershat, Heather, ed. Nickelodeon Nation: The History, Politics, and Economics of America’s Only TV Channel for Kids.
New York: New York University Press, 2004.
Manning, Steven. “The Television News Show Kids Most Watch.”
Columbia Journalism Review, March/April (2000).
Schofield, John. “Ads Come to Class; Cash-strapped Schools Take
a Closer Look at YNN.” Maclean’s, April 5, 1999.
Sherr, Susan, and Meredith Staples. “News for a New Generation
Report 1: Content Analysis, Interviews, and Focus Groups.”
CIRCLE Working Paper 16, July 2004.
Yalof, David, and Kenneth Datrich. Future of the First Amendment: What America’s High School Students Think About
Their Freedoms. Miami: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 2005.
The evolution and practices of youth television news in