Public Editor

June 23, 2013

Should big audience numbers always prompt big news coverage?

Readers want to see coverage of arts and entertainment that draw big audiences. But there are other considerations as well in choosing how to cover them as news.

We consume vast amounts of entertainment in the United States, and readers want to see the movies, music, television and theater they care about covered in The Kansas City Star. Obviously, that’s a tall order — and taller every day.

According to the American Time Use Survey Summary released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics just last week, the average American watched 2.8 hours of TV per day in 2012. That’s about half of all leisure time spent by those 15 and over.

It wasn’t so long ago that there were just three major networks. Today, cable and satellite TV providers offer popular packages that include around 200 basic channels, in addition to many more premium and pay-per-view options. That variety is great from the consumer’s standpoint. But it also means audiences are much more fragmented.

Still, television and big-budget Hollywood movies have the power to draw in huge audiences. The new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,” has made well over $100 million as of this writing (before its second weekend in theaters). Around 20 million people tuned into each of the last games of the NBA Finals.

A caller last Wednesday wondered why that day’s print edition didn’t have any mention of her favorite show. “I don’t know why I’ve looked through every page of the paper looking for anything about the winner of ‘The Voice,’ and I come up empty,” she said. The previous night’s finale to the singing competition pulled in 15.3 million sets of eyeballs.

One can debate whether the winner of a game show is really news or not, but my caller was correct in noting the paper often covers entertainment with relatively tiny audiences.

Readers also often question Star editors’ priorities in coverage of live art, music and theater. No one source could ever review every concert, play, art opening and recital in a metro area of about 2 million people, so there obviously has to be quite a bit of picking and choosing.

That means many performances come and go without a review, and that can disappoint many people who attend these events. Whether they agree or disagree with a critic’s impressions, attendees enjoy the validation of something they chose to attend by seeing it noted in the media.

So here we have an interesting question: Should editors give priority to popular arts and entertainment? Well, Justin Bieber certainly sells a lot more concert tickets and iTunes downloads than Joyce DiDonato — a somewhat specious comparison, to be sure, but also illustrative of the genuine predicament in the question of allocation of resources.

Journalists and readers both should always remember that there’s serious business interest at stake here as well. Getting exposure in the media can be a big help in boosting audience numbers, and savvy promoters do everything they can to generate coverage.

A number of readers contacted me last week when The Star’s print edition made no mention of the announcement of an upcoming film questioning whether the 1996 TWA Flight 800 disaster was caused by a malfunction or a missile attack.

I’d agree it probably merited some mention in the paper. But also note the film and its supposed new revelations aren’t out yet, and at least some of the people behind it have been making the Flight 800 conspiracy theory rounds for over a decade. We should all wait to see whether there’s fire behind the smoke.

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