Can anyone explain the big TV news switch-off?

Two international news broadcasts, 20 years apart.

Both are from obscure towns nobody has previously heard of. Both show graphically the suffering of a foreign people. Both cause their viewers to fight hard not to look away from the horrors they are seeing. But the stories of the Ethiopian famine in October 1984, described by Michael Buerk on page 16, and that of the Beslan siege that unfolded so painfully last week, are a vivid illustration of how much television news has changed in a generation.

Buerk’s BBC reports were watched by almost half of the population. Both the technology available to him as a broadcaster (he had to fly back with film reel footage) and the relative barrenness of the media landscape at the time, meant that he had the stage to himself.

The result was a massive and immediate response. Buerk still gets reminded of it today by viewers who were as young as nine at the time, and who reacted by going out to raise money to relieve the famine.

How different the media scene for television executives covering Beslan, who were able to broadcast live footage and instantaneous reaction to the entire, horrific story. Yet their audiences were a fraction of the numbers who watched the Six O’Clock News in 1984.

As Deborah Turness wonders on page 11: “No other television genre can engage the viewer as events such as this can… So why are fewer people watching?” There aren’t any easy answers.

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