Randy Douthit on the Evolution of TV News
Randy Douthit began his small-screen career in the news business — and he’s optimistic about the future of TV news.
“I believe that news — the kind upon which people can rely — is still alive and will remain so,” Douthit declares.
At 23, Randy Douthit was hired by a Portland, Oregon, TV station — where he spent summers mowing the grass — to fill in as the director of the local morning show.
It was a trial by fire, so to speak.
He found he was good at directing and producing. From there, it was to Seattle Today, a mix of news and entertainment, and then he made a jump to CNN, where he became executive producer and director of such groundbreaking programs as Crossfire and Larry King Live.
Randy Douthit Meets Judge Judy — and the Rest Is History
Douthit fatefully connected with retired family court judge Judith Sheindlin who presided in TV court as Judge Judy, dispensing justice and witticisms from the bench for 25 years.
Judge Judy set a high bar for arbitration reality programs.
Randy Douthit produced and directed Sheindlin, moving with her into the modern age at Amazon Freevee, the streaming channel owned by media giant Amazon. Judy Justice was one of Freevee’s highest rated programs. But Randy Douthit has not strayed far from his news roots.
Randy Douthit: ‘Facts Have Become Less Important’
“TV news has changed since the ’80s,” Douthit says. “Tabloid stories — sometimes verified by only questionable, if any, sources — can become the lead story. Context and actual facts have sometimes become less important.”
As for what he calls “tabloid” TV, the kind that thrives on seamy scandals, murders, and car crashes, and those that rely on the old idea that “if it bleeds, it leads,” Douthit is realistic.
“Programmers want advertisers, so there is definitely a temptation to pump up the salacious,” says Randy Douthit.
Amusing Ourselves to Death
Randy Douthit is in good company with his experienced analysis. The essential premise of Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by educator and media theorist Neil Postman is that a particular medium like TV news can only sustain a certain level of ideas.
Postman argues that rational argument is militated against by the medium of television, and the news of the day becomes a packaged commodity.
Television, he posits, deemphasizes the quality of information in favor of satisfying the far-reaching needs of entertainment.
Postman examines the differences between written speech, which he argues reached its prime in the early-to-mid 19th century, and the forms of televisual communication, which rely mostly on visual images to “sell” lifestyles.
He says that, owing to this change in public discourse, politics has ceased to be about a candidate’s ideas and solutions, and is now about whether they come across favorably on television.
Postman argues, “Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented, or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but which in fact leads one away from knowing.”
He asserts that television news is a form of entertainment programming, and the proliferation of commercials, punchy theme music, and news anchors who are little more than “talking hairdos” prove that televised news cannot readily be taken seriously.
TV News Can Be a Force for Good
While Randy Douthit’s wheelhouse is entertainment, the presentation of the recent United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack illustrates how Douthit has his finger on the pulse of transmitting messages.
“Making sure audiences are aware of the work and where they can find it, and giving them a sense of why they will like it, is key to success,” he told inspirery.com.
“The wider the promotion, the better. But it is also important to target specific groups of viewers with the type of programming that they want to see. You sometimes can get a sense of how well a show will do in certain areas when you get a favorable response to key promotional strategies.”
The Select Committee has captured the interest of many Americans. Audience estimates range from 20 million on the first day of the hearings to 10 million.
Interesting, because TV news first found its viewing success in congressional hearings. The Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 made a television star out of lawyer Joseph Welch and signaled the decline of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his ruthless search for practically nonexistent American Communists. The hearings made an infamous figure out of Roy Cohn, former President Donald Trump’s mentor.
The McClellan hearings of 1957 shone a spotlight on the Teamsters union. They brought down Dave Beck while raising the profile of Jimmy Hoffa, who would be brought down in a later set of hearings. They made a star out of Robert F. Kennedy and a sad joke of mobster Joe Valachi, and brought unwelcome attention to the Mafia in America.
The Watergate hearings opened the curtain behind the break-in and found then-President Richard M. Nixon at the crux of the subsequent cover-up, forcing him to resign ignominiously.
And then there were the Church Committee hearings in 1975 and 1987’s Iran-Contra hearings.
TV exposed the adulterous shenanigans of presidential hopeful Gary Hart, but kept President Bill Clinton in office.
TV covered the conventions of Republicans and Democrats, the police riots of 1968 in Chicago, and that city’s corrupt mayor Richard M. Daley.
TV covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the rise and fall of Lyndon Baines Johnson and the living room war in Vietnam.
Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Ross Perot debated on CNN’s Larry King Live — and that great sucking sound might have been that of Perot losing the battle.
When TV news has a clear focus, it can be a force for good.
Randy Douthit on the Future of the Small Screen
So where does Randy Douthit think this leaves the TV industry? “My business is always pointed to the future,” he said in an Inspirery interview. “Anything else is going backward or will result in stagnation.
“Television must move forward, and I’m excited about the opportunity to create content on the types of platforms which weren’t even a speck in people’s imaginations when I was a kid. As the business grows and develops, so must the people who work in it. The opportunity for that type of continual expansion is extremely exciting to me.”