Bin Laden Death: Web 1, TV 0

By  |  Monday, May 2, 2011 at 9:15 am

For eons now, I’ve been struggling with a question that some of you have been confronting, too: is the Web a rich enough source of information and entertainment that I can get rid of cable TV service? So far, I haven’t cut the cable, and I keep saying that one big reason why is the usefulness of continuous TV news coverage of really big stories. But stories don’t get much bigger than yesterday’s discovery and killing of Osama Bin Laden. And the TV coverage I saw didn’t make a great case for cable being indispensable.

In the time before President Obama made his address, I mostly watched NBC News and CNN. Nobody who wasn’t involved in the operation knew much about it at this point, so the anchors on these channels mostly tapdanced to fill time. They told us, over and over again, that this was huge news. (Really?) But they didn’t even ask many of the questions I was asking–such as “how about al-Zawahiri?”–let alone attempt to answer them. The screen was full of talking heads, but they were saying very little.

Even after the president spoke, the analysis seemed thin–I didn’t hear anything as smart as, say, James Fallows’ impressions over at the Atlantic.

TV coverage thrives when it can show something, and this news was about an event it couldn’t show. The one thing that it showed that was worth seeing were the crowds at Ground Zero, the White House, and elsewhere.

The TV analysis got better as the night went on, but it took surprisingly long for that to happen. By the time it did, some of the continuous coverage wasn’t so continuous anymore. (NBC, for instance, went back to the more weighty matters of Celebrity Apprentice.)

Between blogs and news sites, the Web was far more adept at reacting to yesterday’s developments. And some of the TV coverage that’s worth watching is traveling from TV to Web: for instance, I just watched ABC News’s footage inside the compound, but I did so in embedded form on a blog.

(I also used Twitter and Facebook last night; in fact, I learned about the news from Twitter, before mentioned it on its home page.)

TV does retain some advantages over the Web for these kinds of events:

  • It’s effortless.¬†You can turn on a channel and just consume information. The Web’s far richer, but it involves bopping about, finding items, and processing information–the opposite of sitting back and being a News Potato.
  • It can be communal. Multiple people can sit in front of a TV together, watching and discussing what they see. You aren’t going to crowd around a blog post with your loved ones.

Virtues like that are one reason why I’m still dithering about whether to cut the cord or not. But from now on, I won’t reflexively argue that TV does continuous breaking news better than the Web; I’ll remember yesterday night, when it didn’t.

(Full disclosure: as part of Technologizer’s business relationship with, we’re technically part of the network.)



8 Comments For This Post

  1. Otto Nordpol Says:

    I haven't seen a second of the broadcast TV coverage, but awoke to read the news in my breakfast scan of the NY Times and other news sites. Old school in that I got the news late and only skipped the step of picking up the paper from the driveway. New school in that once alerted, I could quickly visit multiple sites for comment and analysis aided by 12 hours of other people's reflections and additional data from multiple sources. TV does a good job of covering set piece events scheduled and scripted in advance: royal weddings, moon landings, elections, etc. but finds it a really difficult scramble to cover surprise breaking news. The tap dancing you mentioned, repetition and the pressure to keep viewers tuned in to see the commercials are increasingly embarrassing.

    So what was I doing last night? Residing in my private Idaho watching a DVD with the cares of the world far away. Again, it's ironic that the technologies that can bring the world into my living room can just as easily block it out.

  2. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The TV broadcast types almost NEVER ask the questions that really need asking. I've been on every nat network news outlet and the talking heads are pretty empty in my personal experience.

  3. sittininlab Says:

    Can we measure the reliability of information on the web? One of the reasons the media giants move slow is they NEED to have facts checked and rechecked before they let them out into the public. Most web journalists, I presume don’t carry that burden, or have the resources to do so.

  4. jason Says:

    In contrast though, I first went on news sites like to get an immediate update about what ACTUAL news was being teased leading up to Obama's eventual speech. I was left wanting. On all I got was a single news bar, "Breaking News: Obama to make a statement soon about Bin Laden" (paraphrased). But the worst part was that the info stopped right there. I couldn't click on anything to get more information about when I should come back to get more information. At least on TV I knew quickly that A) the anchor knew nothing B) the announcement is delayed C) I will be provided immediate news as soon as it is available.

    On the web there was no indication why Obama was scheduled for 10:30pm when it was 11:15 with no announcement. I hate TV news filler, but a website with a brief header and no live content or direction may actually be worse.

  5. MYoung Says:

    TV news is an oxymoron, most of the time.
    Local TV news is mediocre, unless you're a secret arsonist or can't find the matches again.
    The evening news broadcasts (ABC, CBS, NBC) as well as the 24-hour cable versions (MSNBC for Democratic roars, Fox for Republican roars) are filled with tap dancing around the missing facts and background (background, whut's thaat?).
    Good reporting is NOT instant reporting. Good reporting is accurate, takes plenty of time and effort and money. Oh, yeah: it takes an audience that wants facts instead of thrills.

  6. The_Heraclitus Says:

    The problem is the people who are actually journalists get their orders from editors who have an agenda (from the corp execs) and the reporters have to eat and support their families…

  7. jltnol Says:

    The screen was full of talking heads, but they were saying very little.

    And this differs from news on TV in general how ?

  8. Tech Says:

    The web will win every time.