In Need of an Audience Sensationalism in Dutch Public - In...

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1 In Need of an Audience: Sensationalism in Dutch Public Service News and Current Affairs Programs in the 1990’s * Paul Hendriks Vettehen & Koos Nuijten Introduction Traditionally, one of the main tasks that has been ascribed to Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) organizations in a democratic society is to inform citizens about issues that are relevant to societies’ functioning. Different types of programs may contribute to the fulfillment of this task. The perhaps best-known example is television news, which is generally considered the main source of the day’s important events to the public. Current affairs programs, which provide more in- depth coverage or contextual information, are another example. Political talk shows, which feature more value-laden discussions of public affairs, are a final example. Throughout the past decades, most European PSB organizations have witnessed a deregulation of broadcasting systems and the entrance of commercial competitors in the television market (d’Haenens & Saeys, 2001). The PSB television programs that were designed to inform citizens about public affairs also faced an increasing competition. For instance in the Netherlands, the number of television news programs rose from one in 1992 to five in 2001, and the number of current affairs programs to be seen on an average day rose from one in 1992 to three in 2001. Beside, a certain number of political talk shows and infotainment programs emerged, the precise number of which depends on the definition that is used to describe these genres (Hendriks Vettehen, Nuijten, & Beentjes, 2005, 2006). Over the same period, questions emerged about the PSB performance in fulfilling the task of informing citizens about socially relevant issues. The main topic in these discussions concerned the impact of market-driven journalism on the quality of the news coverage (cf. Fortuyn, 2000). In general, the discussions mirrored previous discussions in the U.S., where most researchers and critics were quite negative about the effects of market-driven journalism. In their opinion, the * Paper, presented at the 3th bi-annual RIPE conference, 2006, november 16-18, Amsterdam and Hilversum, The Netherlands
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2 market mechanisms were expected to produce news with a generally low informational level and a homogeneous content, directed primarily at those sections of the population that are most interesting to the advertisers (e.g., Bagdikian, 1985; McManus, 1994; Underwood, 1988). However, some observers argued that the pressure of the market would urge journalists to take the information needs of the public seriously, which would result in a higher quality news (McManus, 1994, pp. 2–3). A recurrent theoretical notion in the discussions about the quality of news and current affairs programs is that an increasing competition puts pressure on news producers and owners to capture and hold the attention of the audience. Various labels have emerged to describe the news that is expected to have this capacity, for instance ‘dramaturgically crafted news’ (Hvitfelt, 1994), ‘infotainment coefficient’
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