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Extended Interview: Nancy Maynard

January 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: You have said that the evening news broadcasts are no longer the cultural icon that they once were. What do you mean by that?

NANCY MAYNARD: The evening newscast, when it came about in full force in the sixties, was an agenda setter. It spoke to a lifestyle of the country at that time — where there was a family that came home in the evening, [and] watched the evening news.
That does not describe life in America today, and to the degree that the evening newscast was supposed to help America understand what today was like, it may have been realistic then, but Americans have a lot more ways now to figure out what happened today.

Local news has grown up, the Internet has grown up, cable news has grown up. These are all choices that the American public has and uses, very efficiently, to the detriment of the evening news.

TERENCE SMITH: With what effect on the evening news broadcasts?

NANCY MAYNARD: With the effect of the evening news trying to hold on to a tradition, but not necessarily very well. It’s not that it doesn’t serve a purpose for a lot of people. It still gets about 24 million people viewing, on average, every night. That’s a pretty big chunk of our population.

But the news organizations don’t seem to focus their resources there in the way that they used to. When they want to have impact, they don’t usually put [big stories] on the evening newscast. They save it for the evening magazine shows. That’s where the big investigative work is being done. The understanding that at that time, around 6:00, 7:00, families are busy, people aren’t home from work, kids are doing either homework or sports, or other kinds of activities, that keep a cohesion from occurring at that point.

So it’s a combination of lifestyle change, technological change, and a sort of mushy mission — trying to hold on to traditions that are leaving it less important in many people’s lives, certainly in younger people’s lives.

TERENCE SMITH: Do these broadcasts, these evening news broadcasts have a clear sense of their mission?

NANCY MAYNARD: I think that to the degree that the anchors are the editors, there is a mission that they see, of putting together a kind of coherent sort of look at “This is today.” I mean, that’s what Walter Cronkite always used to say.

But today, in America, again, is so complicated compared to what it was when they started. We have twice as many households in the United States now.

TERENCE SMITH: And what have you noticed, as somebody who watches this, who studies this, and thinks about it? What have been the changes in the content of these broadcasts?

NANCY MAYNARD: Many people will talk about softer versus harder, and there’s the raging debate over whether NBC is pandering to women, or whether CBS is a hard-news, male-oriented broadcast. What you see is different attempts to deal with change.

Certainly, NBC’s approach is much more lifestyle-oriented and it really does try to pull the women into the broadcast with … trends that are important to working mothers and, and working families. Very different from the policy-oriented approach that CBS continues to use, with [Dan] Rather basically dealing in the newscast now, in the way that he did in the ’80s, and that you get it hard, you get it tight, and you deal with policy first and trends after.

And ABC has a very conversational approach. I think Peter Jennings is probably the best anchor to kind of tell a story about the news. And it’s kind of a mix of the two, somewhat hard and somewhat soft. So that’s the range. But the so-called softer approach gets the most viewers.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think the networks, in particular, the evening news broadcasts, are fighting that change?

NANCY MAYNARD: I don’t think that they’re harnessing it as aggressively as they probably could. You’re not seeing new forms coming along. You’re seeing tinkering at the edges, which is what’s happening in all media. Even in newspapers, you’re seeing tinkering at the edges, and there’s a big generational chasm between our traditional ways of gathering and reporting and distributing the news, and the consumption of it in the public. The way that it’s organized now just doesn’t fit the needs of younger people.

TERENCE SMITH: Speaking of the audience, tell me about the audience for the evening news, who they are, what their age is, and how they’re different than before.

NANCY MAYNARD: The audiences for the evening news are probably the people who’ve always watched it from the time it started, which means they are older. They’re youngest at NBC, which averages probably in their 40s. They go as high as 60s for CBS. And it is a habit that a certain population segment has developed, and the later populations have not developed as keenly.

They’ll tune into it, occasionally, if there’s a big story or something else going on, but it is an older habit. Newspapers are skewing the same way. The idea that the day is the increment by which you have to determine what’s important and what isn’t, is not necessarily real.

You see a different consumption pattern showing up with younger people who tend to take the headlines from cable or from the Internet, and then read weekly publications.
That’s why you see Sunday newspaper circulation is so much higher, because the week is sometimes a better increment. We’re not dealing with as many stories now that are events.

TERENCE SMITH: What does it say to you, thinking of generations, that the three flagship broadcasts are all anchored by white guys in their sixties who have been in those chairs for 15 and 20 years?

NANCY MAYNARD: It speaks to the tradition in the industry, and the fact that there have been many attempts by the networks, over the years, to bring in women, to bring in nonwhite anchors, and it just doesn’t work for whatever reason, and, you know, there are many reasons why that doesn’t work within the institutions.

Because the job’s very powerful, in ways that we don’t understand. The connection of that personality to an audience is something that the networks take extremely seriously; but so do the stations. I mean, if you go to any big local market, you’re going to find their anchors have been in those chairs for 15 years or 20 years also, because there is, among anchors, so much need to connect with your audience. [Anchors] don’t talk about viewers. They talk about “my audience.” And, and there, there’s a kind of trust that develops that, that has great value…

A big piece of what’s going on now is the tension between national and local, and some of it comes out of the history of television.

NANCY MAYNARD: When television started and the FCC started giving broadcast licenses out, the first ones were given to newspaper publishers because the assumption was that the publishers would run this new medium in the public interest, in the way that they did their newspapers. But guess what?

First of all, there weren’t enough people in local markets with television sets to make news efficient. Secondly the populations weren’t big enough. You couldn’t get scale, because all the cost of doing a broadcast goes into the front end. If you can’t amortize it over an audience, you don’t have anything.

So after a few failed experiments, [broadcasters] looked around, said, “Hmm, probably it’s better to do it at the national level because the efficiency of getting it done in one place and then sending it local were easier.” Now it’s building back up the other way. The energy and the economics are shifting local, because the fill-in has happened both in devices and in population, and you’re beginning to see the muscle of the local newscast over the network, and that’s why you’re seeing so much expansion of local news to the detriment of the network. [With local news,] you’re learning about things you know about, that are closer to you. It’s on a lot. You can tune in it a number of times. And then by the time the national comes along who needs it?

TERENCE SMITH: What can national broadcasts provide?

NANCY MAYNARD: The networks have great storytelling power. The question is whether or not they’re organizing their resources to tell those stories in the most compelling ways. Certainly, they’re trying on the news magazines, and so there’s the tension between what is assumed to be the public interest duty of having a nightly newscast, because you’ve always had one and it was part of the regulatory scheme when, when broadcasting was regulated more stringently than it is now.

TERENCE SMITH: From the markets that you have studied, do you think there is still room for three national evening news broadcasts on the principal networks?

NANCY MAYNARD: Sure there is. Certainly, economically, they probably can make it happen. It’s going to be harder, over time, for CBS and ABC to continue to do that because they don’t have the secondary sources of income for the costs. They don’t have the cable fees, they don’t have the second advertising revenue that [others are] getting on cable.

Fox is building a parallel system to the NBC system. They started with the cable but they’re building local affiliate newscasts, and they’ll be able to build up to network level — [although] whether they go with a broadcast is another issue.

TERENCE SMITH: Looking down the road, what do you expect to see in the evening, five or ten years from now?

NANCY MAYNARD: That’s a complicated question because the question that I will put in front of that is what happens if we end up having digital television rolled out in a significant manner by that time? And since the evening newscast is before prime time, there’ll probably be an ability to fracture the signal and send different things different ways. One thing I’m pretty sure of is I don’t think there will be the three evening newscasts on the air.


NANCY MAYNARD: Because change is never linear, and if you look at everything that you know right now, and try to project what’s going to happen, you’re going to get it wrong. The question is how people are going to get their information, generally, and the news is only a part of that bigger picture. To the degree that there are devices that people will use, the idea of sitting in front of the television set becomes a very different question. Adoption of technologies is more comfortable, usually, to younger people, because they’ve grown up with it. [The end result could be] that whole demographic for traditional television news [could] skew even older.

TERENCE SMITH: Is this the end of the generation of sort of “super anchors,” the people you’ve practically grown up with telling you the news?

NANCY MAYNARD: It’s not the end of the super anchors. It may be the end of the super anchors at night, because now there’s super anchors in the morning and there’s super anchors on your local television station, which have real enduring power.

The value of the major-market anchor on broadcast television is power to behold, and they have more credibility in every research project, they have more credibility than any other news provider, more than the local newspaper, more than the national newspaper more than the national anchor. That’s where the shift is basically going.

The evening news as we know it is a generational icon, and it still has glamour and staying power and it has integrity. But it has kind of shaky legs.

TERENCE SMITH: The evening news used to be appointment television. People made it a point to watch it, if they could, five nights a week. Do they still?

NANCY MAYNARD: No, sir. The appointment television of today is really more [entertainment.] “Survivor” is appointment television… What happens now is the reason you don’t have to have appointment television is that you never really miss anything. When television and these network newscasts began, if you didn’t watch it, you didn’t have it. It was gone. There was no way for you to go and get it again.

But one of the advantages to the public of digital information technology, which includes the Internet, but includes a lot of other things as well, is its ability to retrieve information on demand.

So why would you organize your life around something that you could catch up with later, if you really needed to have it, when you’re not certain that what they’re going to show you is something you really need or what to know? …
The reason there were so many newspapers in cities before television began was because each one had its voice, and what’s happening now is that people are able to exercise that choice.