Evening News Evolution
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JIM LEHRER: The network news, on this 20th anniversary of Dan Rather’s tenure as anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” Media correspondent Terence Smith reports.
DAN RATHER: Good evening. California raced….
TOM BROKAW: Good evening. The price of money.
PETER JENNINGS: Good evening. We begin tonight with. . .
TERENCE SMITH: These are the network evening news broadcasts of today, a far cry from what they once were.
WALTER CRONKITE: Good evening from our CBS newsroom in New York.
TERENCE SMITH: The electronic heart, created by Walter Cronkite and his colleagues of years past, was appointment television for an entire generation. Veteran television producer, Av Westin.
AV WESTIN: I think we all remember, certainly my generation, of coming home at night, even when we weren’t working in the business and sitting around the dinner table and watching Huntley-Brinkley…
CHET HUNTLEY: Good night, David.
DAVID BRINKLEY: Good night, Chet.
AV WESTIN: Or Doug Edwards and, in the early days, Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds at ABC.
TERENCE SMITH: That generational icon, says Av Westin, is gone.
AV WESTIN: There are a lot of other distracters that enable you to get your news or get information without sitting down in front of your tube at the dinner hour.
ANCHOR: The promise of the movement…
TERENCE SMITH: And in today’s television landscape, the evening news broadcasts are no longer the 800-pound gorilla. Collectively, their share of television sets in use at that hour, a key industry barometer, has declined precipitously from an average of 75 percent 30 years ago, to 44 percent today.
PETER JENNINGS: The president is going to get the attorney general…
SPOKESMAN: Roll tape.
TERENCE SMITH: Peter Jennings has anchored ABC’s “World News Tonight” for 18 years.
TERENCE SMITH: Where has that audience gone?
PETER JENNINGS: Everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. It’s gone to the cable channels, which deliver news, it’s gone to all of the 75 or 275 channels that you can get on an average home set today.
TERENCE SMITH: Tom Brokaw has been at the NBC Nightly News helm also for 18 years.
TOM BROKAW: In 1970, when it got dark in America, there were only two planets in the universe: CBS and NBC. ABC wasn’t even a player then. Now when it gets dark in the television universe, it’s filled with planets out there and people have that many more choices.
DAN RATHER: Let’s go over the lineup.
TERENCE SMITH: Dan Rather, 69, is the senior anchor of the three, having headed the “CBS Evening News” for 20 years. He says the broadcasts are stuck in a time slot that will drive their numbers down even more.
DAN RATHER: I think it’s inevitable that our audience share will go even lower. You said we’re now at about 44 percent for all three of the newscasts. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at 35, or 30, or maybe even 25.
ANCHOR: It’s official…
TERENCE SMITH: At 6:30 p.m. Eastern Monday through Friday when the three flagship broadcasts are transmitted from their respective New York headquarters, many people are tuned in not to the tube, but rather to their busy lives. Working families especially, can be caught up in gridlock commutes, workouts, makeshift dinners, or that added workload at the office.
PETER JENNINGS: How are things?
TERENCE SMITH: Peter Jennings works to encapsulate the day’s news into 22 minutes or less, but wishes more viewers were home to tune in.
TERENCE SMITH: Who’s home at 6:30 or 7:00 in the evening?
PETER JENNINGS: Or 5:30 in some time zones in the country as well, I mean, I say in jest sometimes, that maybe we shouldn’t call it “World News Tonight” we might want to call it “World News This Afternoon.”
TERENCE SMITH: Many Americans get their news from all news radio.
SPOKESMAN: And good morning. The Dow down 12 points now…
TERENCE SMITH: The Internet, local news.
ANCHOR: There are some remarkable pictures coming out of New York state tonight.
TERENCE SMITH: And cable news. Long before network anchors say “good evening.”
SPOKESMAN: Four times a day…
TERENCE SMITH: Critics sometimes assail the evening broadcasts as “news you already know.”
PETER JENNINGS: We have tried to change and give-I realize it’s a bit of a corny phrase-a dimension of added value to the major stories of the day. So in some respects the big story of the day, President Bush does “x,” is not as important to us as the second story which is president bush did “x” because.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the impact of the evening news broadcast, the three nightly news, are they… Is that impact less or different today than it was before?
TOM BROKAW: I suspect it may be diffused. I think that we have to work harder at finding those stories that do have that kind of impact. I mean, on my watch at nightly news, the greatest single impact that I can remember had to do with the famine in Ethiopia and Sudan. We put that on the air here for the first time. That was big impact. And my guess is that we would still have that impact today if we came across that kind of a story. But there are fewer and fewer opportunities.
TERENCE SMITH: Three white male anchors still deliver the half-hour broadcast at essentially the same time and in the same format as they have since Cronkite began the tradition.
ED FOUHY: They are in search of a role in the society that is as important as it used to be. So far I don’t think they’ve found it.
TERENCE SMITH: Ed Fouhy worked for all three networks in his 22-year career as a producer and network executive.
ED FOUHY: Look at it this way: The evening news is essentially the same form now that it was 38 years ago when Walter Cronkite sat down for half an hour in a studio in New York and introduced correspondent pieces. Thirty-eight years of the same format. Now, I would say to you there are very few things in the world that are unchanged over the last 38 years. They are, in many ways, behaving as if they still had the nation by the ears and the eyes.
TOM BROKAW: It has stayed the same essentially in its form. Automobiles still have four tires and a central engine that transports them, but they have a different look about them, different styling and we have different expectations of them as well.
DAN RATHER: We haven’t changed as much as we probably should have. I think it’s fair criticism, I think it’s valid criticism to say that we haven’t been thoughtful enough, nor have we acted quickly enough, or well enough, to the changing needs of the audience and new ways of coverage and new ways of broadcasting. I think that’s a valid criticism.
TERENCE SMITH: And the news itself may also seem less urgent these days.
ED FOUHY: There’s no trigger-happy Russian who might hurl a missile down your chimney tomorrow. Let’s remember that all through those years of the Cold War, one reason we turned it on was to see whether or not something really awful had happened in the world during the day while we were working.
SPOKESMAN: Roll track nine…
TERENCE SMITH: While the structure hasn’t fundamentally changed, the content of the news broadcast is different. Once, they sought to match the stories above the fold on the front page of the Washington Post and the New York Times. A sort of illustrated headline service.
TOM BROKAW: American troops in the Persian Gulf…
TERENCE SMITH: Now, traditional hard news is generally presented in the first block and in some cases, only in the first segment…
TOM BROKAW: The growing controversy over laser eye surgery…
TERENCE SMITH: Before the broadcast typically turns to softer, lifestyle trend issues, the so-called “news you can use.” Has the emphasis on soft news attracted new viewers or turned people off?
DAN RATHER: I’m of the school that says it may have turned some off. I’m in the minority. It’s fair to say that majority thinking in television news rooms these days is that you can’t win with hard news and only hard news all the time in any half-hour broadcast.
TERENCE SMITH: At NBC, Tom Brokaw welcomes the changes in content.
TOM BROKAW: We have reduced the number of stories, we’ve spent more time on them, and what we try to do is say we think these are the biggest stories and the most important stories in your life. And by the way, here are some stories as well that are not in the day’s news that are going to affect your lives as well in a variety of ways, about finance, health, changing the shape of the American family. That is all now part of what I believe is our agenda.
TERENCE SMITH: A recent study from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, shows soft news is hastening the decline in news audiences nationally. Av Westin agrees.
AV WESTIN: I think if you look at the evening news, you find out that it’s a mini-magazine. We in the television news business, if you will, have video-educated the American public to expect that they’re going to get more entertainment or more news you can use. And that used to be a pejorative phrase.
NANCY MAYNARD: What you see is different attempts to deal with change.
TERENCE SMITH: Nancy Maynard, a media analyst, says each of the broadcasts is seeking a certain slice of the audience.
TOM BROKAW: Especially among young working mothers.
NANCY MAYNARD: Certainly NBC’s approach is much more lifestyle oriented. And it really does try to pull the women in to the broadcast with issues that it feels are important trend issues.
DAN RATHER: Bio-terror attacks on U.S. soil. . .
NANCY MAYNARD: Very different from the policy oriented approach that CBS continues to use. You get it hard, you get it tight and you deal with policy first and trends after.
PETER JENNINGS: Doctors hope this test will prove more appealing to patients….
NANCY MAYNARD: And ABC a very conversational approach. It’s kind of a mix of the two, somewhat hard and somewhat soft.
TERENCE SMITH: For all of the talk about the best way to find and keep an audience for the evening news, reports of the death of these broadcasts are premature. Taken together, the big three on ABC, CBS, and NBC, command a huge audience, some 30 million viewers a night. No other news media-print, broadcast or Internet-approaches that collective reach.
But the network evening news broadcasts have lost the primacy they once had within their news divisions to the more profitable primetime magazine shows like “Dateline” on NBC, “20/20″ on ABC and “60 minutes” on CBS. And while the overall viewing numbers remain large, the evening news audiences have shrunk to the point that the top-rated morning news show, “The Today Show,” has a rating that occasionally approaches that of the third-place “CBS Evening News.”
Worse yet, although the network news audience has always had a large number of older viewers, the collective audience is even older than it used to be. And there is the unknown variable of the Internet, especially among younger viewers.
NANCY MAYNARD: We have now refrigeration for information. It’s called digital information technology. You can store it, you can retrieve it on will or at will.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite staff layoffs, foreign and domestic bureau closings, and resource cutbacks, the evening news broadcasts still do make money– a lot of it. The ratings leader, “NBC’s Nightly News,” for example, reportedly generates $200 million a year in revenue and tens of millions in profits. That’s why ratings, such as these minute-to-minute snapshots of all the content plays, remains crucial to the broadcast. Will the evening news broadcast continue in their current time slots? The anchors are uncertain.
PETER JENNINGS: The hardest thing in the world to change is an audience’s news habit. For those Americans who are accustomed to a national evening newscast in this format, have always had it in the dinner hour and not in the middle of their primetime programming.
DAN RATHER: I dream of having a newscast 10:00 at night in the Eastern Time zone. 10:00 to 11:00. It’s a combination of pretty much what today’s evening news is and “60 Minutes” and “Nightline” — one hour in the last hour in what I’ll call primetime.
TOM BROKAW: What may change is that the cost of entertainment becomes so great that the network may decide that it needs a 10:00 newscast for an hour with some inserts for local news, much like the “Today” program has now. That’s a model that I would encourage. So that’s one way…
TERENCE SMITH: In the place of the nightly news?
TOM BROKAW: Maybe in the place of the nightly news, although I think there will always be a place for something at the end of the day for half an hour.
TERENCE SMITH: After 38 years, there probably will, at least as long as the broadcasts continue to make money for their corporate owners.
ANCHOR: I’ll see you back here tomorrow night.