The rise of 24-hour news programming, associated with the shift from the electronic news gathering (ENG) of the 1970s to the satellite news gathering (SNG) of the 1980s, marks a shift in the temporal and spatial connectivity of the globe. The continuousness and sheer expanse of 24/7 news has driven an appetite for immediacy, proximity, and simultaneity, so that today these are the dominant modes of television news programs, defining how the world is represented to millions and shaping news agendas and allegedly the events being represented.
The so-called “CNN effect” or “phenomenon” is the idea that television news shapes the behavior of influential, sometimes disparate, and especially political actors in events that are being covered as they happen “live” in “real time”. This term is synonymous with CNN’s name-making coverage of the 1991 Gulf War. With the war in the living room, the accountability of politicians, diplomats, military strategists, and journalists was subjected to the unblinking eye of the television camera, as the relentless if simulated intimacy and urgency of the coverage created the first significant global TV audience. For all its vacuous images, this was a new kind of present history and it was an emotionally involving experience. The war had a continuous presence in everyday lives – an experience usually localized to actual conflict areas became a global phenomenon.
Today, the 1991 Gulf War seems barely remarkable in the context of the inexorable rise of the so-called “media event,” to the extent that it has become almost a standard frame of the conflicts and catastrophes that appear to have dominated the opening of the twenty-first century on television. In less connected and less frenetic times, the media event stood out as marking a momentous and sometimes catastrophic occurrence, so that the routine schedules of television channels would be interrupted to signify “news” worthy of intensive, extensive, and continuous attention. Media events are the ultimate live frame, for they are based on a particular (mostly televisual) discourse that at one level at least reflexively situates the medium and its participants in the production of an unfolding event. The term is often related to the work of Dayan and Katz (1992), who identify three sub-divisions of media events, namely, “contests,” “conquests,” and “coronations.” Their focus is on the narrative of the “festive viewing” of television and the celebratory and ceremonial unifying of audiences on such occasions.
Since the publication of Dyan and Katz’s influential work, however, the media event has become devalued in two key ways. First, 24-hour-news networks are part of a hypermedia environment that tracks events continuously; there is no “time out.” The very term “rolling news” is something of a paradox, not only because of the segmented and repetitive nature of “rolling” news, but also because of the presumption of there being sufficient “news” to fill such an expanse of time. Second, television news coverage has become permeated by a series of stories connected through a discourse around terrorism and the so-called “war on terror.” Twenty-four-hour networks may on the one hand bring an apparently more attuned connection with local and global events, but on the other they bring a pervasive sense of insecurity and even fear.
The 24-hour newscast phenomenon acquired new global spaces through the advances of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation into Asia with his takeover of STAR (Satellite Television for the Asian Region) in the mid-1990s. Elsewhere, the perceived international influence of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s coverage of 9/11 and the war on terror (e.g., its broadcast of audio and video messages from Al-Qaeda leaders, picked up by western channels) provoked the establishment of other pan-Arab satellite channels. For instance, it was no coincidence that the news channel Al Arabia was launched in March 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq war. Furthermore, the launch of the English-language Al Jazeera International in 2007 demonstrates a demand for ever greater connectivity from broadcasters attempting to shape global news agendas.
However, a deep or enduring impact of the satiation of global television news remains to be seen. From a viewer perspective, at least, what matters is not so much whether one spends the day at home with the BBC’s News 24 or CNN as background noise, but that cumulatively, the “network news society” delivers a persistent and highly unsettling contiguity with conflict and catastrophe. Yet this very routinization of representation is also said to have a paradoxical effect in numbing responses. For instance, the media event of the 2003 Iraq war soon converted into habitual coverage of the inconclusiveness of its aftermath (more reminiscent of the coverage of the period of the Vietnam War).
The built-in obsolescence of all television news always ultimately extinguishes the intensity of the media event, and reduces it to a serial narrative of the everyday and the familiar, as with its recapitulative exhausting of the events of 9/11. So 24-hour television “modulates” between chasing immediacy, instantaneity, and novelty as primary news values, and the reduction of events into familiar, manageable, and “safe” narratives, through its compulsion to repeat and its reliance on its ever-accumulating archive (Hoskins & O’Loughlin 2007). Twenty-four-hour TV, then, is a significant node of the global connectedness of late modern society that both amplifies and assuages the experience of events continuously represented as “news.”
- Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1992). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Hoskins, A., & O’Loughlin, B. (2007). Television and terror: Conflicting times and the crisis of news discourse. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Piers, P. (2002). The CNN effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London: Routledge.