British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Television News Agencies – An Introduction

It is generally the case that television broadcasters do not have the means to station their own reporters and camera crews in all corners of the world. They have come to rely on television news agencies to supply filmed news items to them. Television news agencies came into being in North America in the late Forties and early Fifties since it was there that the demand for television newsfilm first arose.

Up to this point only theatrical newsreels provided news in the form of moving images to the public. Limitations placed on the newsreels due to available technology and the distribution infrastructure meant that newsreels could not compete in the business of breaking news. The role of the newsreels was to provide the pictures in animation of stories that were already known to their audiences through other news outlets such as newspapers and radio. When television entered the market, all the established providers of news had to re-evaluate their role in the news-provision chain.

A prevalent assumption is that television news agencies are directly descended from the newsreel companies, and that the big wire agencies were also instrumental in their formation. Upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the early development of television news agencies was much more complex than that. Whilst continuities from the age of the newsreels are clearly identifiable in the operational structure, staff and to some degree the form of the product, they do not necessarily take a commercial form.

Of the dozen or so internationally established newsreel companies, only two were directly involved in setting up a television news agency (Fox Movietone and Telenews). It is therefore difficult to speak of an industry wide shift from the provision of newsfilm for the theatrical screen to catering to the television news market. The newsreels were firmly embedded in an entertainment context and formed only a small and not necessarily profitable part of the Hollywood Studios’ business. When it became necessary to step up the game and turn to serious newsgathering, the majority of newsreels shied away. The news wire agencies were acutely aware of the new market and the need to get involved.

Yet Reuters and the Associated Press, the two giants in the field, did not participate in the first ventures. This fell to the two smaller news agencies operating at the time; United Press (UP) and International News Service (INS). As the Networks grew and solidified their newsgathering operations, the young TV newsfilm agencies were forced out of the US market. By the 1950s the television boom was in full swing in Europe and TV news agencies moved into the new market and began operating on a truly international level, consolidating and expanding their business in the early 1960s and 1970s.

Nowadays, ownership of TV news wholesale is highly concentrated with Associated Press Television News (APTN) and Reuters Television being the only two major commercial wholesalers of television news images internationally. Both agencies developed powerful infrastructures of bureaux and satellite coverage around the globe to deliver breaking global news, sport, entertainment, technology and human interest video content to broadcasters, online and mobile platforms.

The analysis and understanding of the development of global newsgathering networks and their current practices is vital. Television news agencies are integral to the system of news production that has shaped our common visual memory and understanding of contemporary events for over half a century. The histories of news reporting by the major European television stations and US networks have been written, and much attention has been paid to the news values that govern their production methods and the selection of news items for inclusion into news programmes. The fact that the material made available to television stations has already gone through a selection process by their suppliers – the television news agencies – is often omitted or downplayed in such accounts. Further research into the histories of television news agencies and their current practices is much needed.

By Zuzana Zabkova