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Christine O'Donnell and the rise of cable TV politics: Why we're responsible

So long as sensational programming drives TV news ratings, outlandish figures will stick around. You vote with your remote – for either real solutions to complicated issues or snarky comments and snappy sound bites.

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Regardless of how you feel about O’Donnell’s beliefs, she understands the system that catapulted her to fame. Her point about Rolodexes is clear and succinct. I know how crucial those factors are when producers evaluate guests. It also helps to have a confident, outgoing personality that keeps viewers engaged even if they disagree with the point of view.

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The process has a purpose: avoid boredom. Anytime a discussion drifts into dullness, viewers change channels. “What you never want,” a newsroom supervisor once advised me, “is a segment that plays like three guys on cable access talking about soil conservation.”

No offense to soil conservationists. My boss was just trying to emphasize that he wanted all interview segments to be lively and compelling.

Searching for the right person to interview can be a hard slog. You want participants who will respond to questions quickly and speak in complete sentences. Hesitation isn’t good. Long pauses – the kind that are needed to make a thoughtful point instead of recycle a talking point – are worse. When I found people who could handle the pressure of being on camera and get their points across effectively, I put them on my A-list.

Pundits have warned about the dangers of making presentation the top priority across the broadcast spectrum. An equally serious problem is that Americans born since 1985 have grown up watching TV news guests and political figures talk about policy the way school bullies talk about your mother. They assume it’s normal.

I keep coming back to the image of those three guys on cable access. In the real world, you can’t rush through soil conservation. You won’t find solutions to complicated issues in snappy sound bites. There is no shortcut to wisdom and anger seldom leads to insight.

Unfortunately, ratings rule in TV and if guests like O’Donnell can pump up ratings (and possibly get elected to the US Senate) don’t expect changes soon. Critics of the system have my support, along with this advice: Leave the producers alone. They’re already hard at work on an upcoming segment.

Jeffrey Shaffer, a former news producer, is the author of “It Came With the House.”


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