Let’s try a little experiment in interactive journalism. Those of you who want this story to be about lobster farming in Nova Scotia, raise your hands. Okay, now let’s hear from all those who’d rather read about celebrity dental surgery. Next, how many would prefer an article on CNN’s Newsnight, the first TV news broadcast to let viewers choose which stories get shown on the air?
Lucky you — choice number three wins by a landslide.
Since late July, Newsnight has offered its audience an unprecedented opportunity to program part of the 60-minute newscast. Every weeknight at 12 a.m., the show flashes a menu of six story choices across the screen, then invites its viewers to dial a 75-cent-per-call 900 number and vote on which two- to four-minute news-feature reports they’d most like to see. The two top choices are broadcast later in the show, leaving the losers to air on another CNN program or be shelved permanently.
”We like to think of it as the democratization of the newsroom,” explains Joshua Loory, Newsnight’s 32-year-old executive producer, as he paces around the cramped control room inside CNN Center in Atlanta. ”We’re trying to foster more interest in our newscast, trying to keep people watching longer. And this is a way to pull people in, to make them feel more a part of the program.”
One recent interactive segment is typical of how the process works. After newscasters Patrick Emory and Donna Kelley rattle off the main headlines of the day — Iraqi troops mass on the Saudi border, Congress passes new civil- rights legislation, President Bush’s pet pooch Millie is suffering from lead poisoning — a menu of six ”B-section” stories is unveiled on the screen: inner- city kids who attend private school, teenagers who get face-lifts, celebrities who have been terrorized by death threats, the perils of poison oak, VCRs in nursing homes, and Cuba’s war on drugs. ”Call in!” Emory barks in his voice-over announcement. ”Vote for the story you want to see!”
In the next five minutes, nearly 1,000 CNN viewers dial Newsnight’s 900 number and listen to Emory’s or Kelley’s recorded voice telling them to cast their ballots by punching the appropriate Touch-Tone buttons. In the control room, Loory has a phone pressed to his ear, waiting as an AT&T technician in Omaha, Neb., tabulates the votes. ”I usually have a pretty good idea of what the viewers are going to choose,” he says. ”I’m right at least half of the time.” On this particular night, for instance, ”they’ll probably pick the Cuban drug story. People really love drug stories. Although…” he rubs his nose thoughtfully, ”we may have a dark horse with this teenage plastic surgery thing.”
CNN isn’t the first network to experiment with the ”Have It Your Way” approach to broadcasting. In 1982, NBC’s Saturday Night Live tried a similar idea with its ”Larry the Lobster” segment, in which a live lobster was dangled over a boiling pot and viewers phoned in to vote on whether it should be spared (more than a half-million called, saving Larry by a margin of 12,748 votes). In 1988, Fox tried interactive TV as well, airing a Jack the Ripper 100th-anniversary special in which viewers cast telephone ballots on who the Ripper actually was (he was never caught).