In the past week, television viewers voted for the Super Bowl MVP, Hines Ward. They voted for overwrought balladeers on "American Idol." They voted for celebrity hoofers on "Dancing with the Stars.'' Perhaps they even voted in the last presidential election - 55.3 percent did, the highest percentage since 1980. Whatever the reason, voting for stuff has become part of the national zeitgeist.
In another indicator of how far TV news has traveled from the days of Walter Cronkite, CBS Friday night unveils "You Choose, Steve Hartman Reports" on the "CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer.'' Last Friday, viewers were given three story choices: Do-It-Yourself Funerals, The Jerk-o-Meter, and The Smallest Town in America. Viewers had until Monday at 2 p.m. to vote; the winner will air Friday night. (They'll get three more stories to vote on during the broadcast.)
Mr. Hartman, who will pursue stories that viewers choose, insists CBS would not rely on an Internet poll to decide what hard news stories to cover. But the network is hoping to draw more viewers. "Americans want to feel a part of the show they're watching more than ever," he says. "Their appetite for choice is not satiated yet."
It's an interactive world. If you can e-mail or text message people in power, you get the feeling you can make a difference. This interactivity is becoming important in Europe, where a survey last year showed ratings rose by 20 percent when viewers could interact with shows via their mobile phones. In Chile, the newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias (The Latest News) relies on website hits to determine which stories to follow up. Readers tend to not go highbrow - stories with scantily clad women do well.
And just last month, the Wisconsin State Journal began offering four or five choices on its website for the next day's page one choices. Managing editor Tim Kelley told Editor & Publisher the readers' top choice will "typically appear on the front page.''
As to Hartman's possibilities for Friday, the Jerk-o-Meter would have dealt with a device developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When hooked up to your phone, it can apparently determine if you're being a jerk. If viewers had chosen to hear about a small town, they'd have met the sole inhabitant of a Nebraska town, who actually holds town meetings with herself.
As it turned out, America voted to find out about do-it-yourself funerals. "It's more of a conservation movement; it's all about preservation," says Hartman.