Monday, November 07, 2005

What future for network news?

What is network news going to look like five years from now? Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, a pretty confident answer would have been "Pretty much the same as it looks now." Now, with the networks under ever greater pressure from cable, satellite and Internet, and the old troika of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings gone, the answer is much less certain. In fact, no-one has a clue what network news will be like five years from now--or even six months from now.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Business section (registration required), Bill Carter asks five key questions that need to be resolved in the near future:
  • "Who will anchor the ABC evening news after the death of Peter Jennings?
  • "Who will eventually take over the CBS evening newscast, if CBS will even have a traditional anchor format on the program?
  • "Who will lead NBC News, which is still without a permanent president?
  • "Will the long-running ABC News program 'Nightline' be able to survive with an ensemble anchor team replacing the program's highly regarded anchor/patriarch, Ted Koppel?
  • "Will the evening newscasts at each network be regarded as lesser programs in comparison with the far more profitable morning news programs like 'Today' and 'Good Morning.'"

These questions all cut to the core of what we think "network news" should be all about. Are we still talking about the dominant construct, which has remained that of the all-powerful nightly network news, headed by the all-powerful network news anchor defining America's universe for all its people? This construct, which crystalized in the 1960s, has been steadily undermined in recent years as news budgets were slashed and total network news audiences plummeted (and those audiences that remain skew older--advertisers don't like older audiences). But the core idea of an early evening, 30-minute national network news broadcast has remained sacrosanct - up till now. Will that remain the case? Yes, it's too easy to wax nostalgic about the era of Edward R. Murrow, Huntley and Brinkley and Walter Cronkite--an era immortalized in such works as Fred Friendly's Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control . . ., and in the just-released movie "Good Night, and Good Luck. Even if there is a tendency to mythologize those "good old days," we can't help but regret that today's network news divisions are mere shadows of their former selves. Yet at least we can still recognize today's entities as direct line descendants of these paragons of the (so-called) "golden age of television". With the passing of the "old guard", will we be able to say the same in five years? What kind of people will take the place of Brokaw, Rather, Jennings, Koppel et al.?

Certainly the network news shows are still pulling in national audiences - between 22 and 25 million per night, according to Carter - that dwarf those of the cable networks. But is that enough? And these numbers diminish with each passing year. The morning news shows still remain profitable and healthy, but these are increasingly turning to entertainment news. What's to be done? Everything is up in the air for the network planners. Maybe it should be. Maybe the old network news construct, built in an era when 95% of Americans watched the same three TV stations, is simply no longer tenable. If that's the case, what's going to replace it?

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