Look What a TV Drama Can Teach Us About the News Business

Michael Rosenblum
4 min readJan 14, 2024
Image courtesy WikiCommons

In 1999, The Royal Mail, Britain’s postal service, instituted a new computerized tracking system called Horizon, built by Fujitsu.

The software began to track anomalies in accounting by local postmasters and mistresses. They seemed to be skimming off money. Investigations, based on the computerized findings followed, as did arrests, jail terms, bankrutpcies, broken marriages, destroyed lives, and a few suicides.

As it turned out, almost all of it was based on a flaw in the software. It was a national scandal, uncovered by the dogged work of independent journalists at The BBC, Computer Weekly and Private Eye.

Never-the-less, this travesty of justice, which has been called by The Criminal Case Review Commission, “the most widespread miscarriage of justice the CCRC has ever seen and represents the biggest single series of wrongful convictions in British legal history,” got remarkably little attention.

For 25 years, a group of postal workers, led by Alan Bates, a former postmaster, fought to clear their names. By 2020, a small handful of the thousands who had been accused had had their convictions quashed, but tby 2021 all legal action had ground to a halt.

Then, a month ago, ITV, the commercial TV network here in the UK began to broadcast a series entitled Mr. Bates vs The Post Office. It was a drama, with Toby Jones playing the part of Alan Bates. It was fiction but is was based on well-researched fact. As we say in the TV business “based on a true story.”

The series garnered 9.2 million viewers, a big number in the UK. But more significantly, and more interestingly, it set off a firestorm of interest and action on what had been a long dormant case. Parliamentary hearings were called; witnesses forced to testify; the former head of the Royal Mail was forced to return her CBE, a major honor in the UK. The decades-long torment of the postal workers and the deep injustice done to them led the evening news night after night, and dominated the front pages of every newspaper.

What happened?

The scandal was presented as a story; a story that everyone could related to. It was a story that captured the imagination of the nation. It was not a news story, in fact it was a very old story, but it was now being told in a different way — through characters and drama. As conventional ‘news’ — it, reporters and interviews it had not worked. But now, as a charcter-driven story, it caught fire.

My friend and former student, now a professor at Cardiff, Dr. David Dunkley Gymiah calls this cinema journalism.

We have been working with some of the biggest news broadcasters in the US over the past decade to introduce this idea to them. In the place of the reporter stand up, the man on the street soundbite, the b-roll and the interview, we have been working with them to marry solid journalism to what we would call Netflix storytelling. And it works. It works incredibly well. In the markets where we have applied this, our news shows have often gone to #1 in ratings, and always #1 in the more important measure of audience engagement.

As human beings, we are wired for stories about people. Every major religion is based on the story of a person — Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, The Budha. These are dramatic stories but they carry important information. This is why they resonate with us even after thousands of years.

In 1989, a group of teenagers in New York were accused the assault and rape of a 28-year old white woman, Trish Meili. Like the Horizon story, it represented a scandal that hit the tabloids and the young men were tried and convicted. A certain current Republican Presidential candidate took out a full page ad in The New York Times asking for the death penalty to be imposed. As it turned out, they were falsely accused.

In 2019, Ava DuVernay produce and directed a fictionalized version of the case entitled When They See Us. It garnered more than 23 million streams in its first month, and more important, set in motion legal action that resulted in both exonerations and reparations to the unjustly accused. That is the power of storytelling. It resonates with us. It makes us care and pay attention.

If TV news is going to survive the onslaught of social media, then it must change the way it conveys information to us. The news does not need actors or script writers, but what it does need is to focus on real life characters and real life stories — tell them properly — sans reporter stand ups or breathless ‘BREAKING NEWS’ crawls, and you’ll hold the attention of the nation.

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Michael Rosenblum

Co-Founder TheVJ.com, Father of Videojournalism, trained 40,000+ VJs. Built VJ-driven networks worldwide. Video Revolution. Founder CurrentTV, NYTimes TV. etc..