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Extended Interview: Av Westin

January 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: When you look at the evening news broadcasts today versus what they were 10 or 20 years ago, what strikes you?

AV WESTIN: The evening news broadcasts on television today are quite a different animal than they were when they first went to a half an hour, which is sort of the modern era. I mean, there were 15-minute programs in black and white, but the half-hour stuff started in ’62.

In those days, the programs were essentially, I would say, an illustrated headline service. They tried to cover all the news of the day, at some length. Indeed, sometimes, their length was a minute [and] fifteen [seconds] and, sometimes, it was 20-seconds voice-over, but, basically, if you tuned into the evening news, you got a full menu of what happened throughout the day.

I was at CBS when the half-hour program started, and the definition of news, then, around the hallways, was [journalist Edward R.] Murrow’s definition, in a sense. It was geopolitical news, economic news. Then, after they got rid of all of that, there might be a feature, which, interestingly enough, was probably ripped out of the first page, second section, of The New York Times. But basically they had a definition of what we would call “hard news.”

Now, today, I think if you look at the evening news, you find out that it’s a mini magazine. In most cases, the anchor comes on and tells you that the top story is Bush’s new– President Bush’s new economic program.

But later in the program, we’re also going to tell you about a new cure for cancer. They split that. Then they’ll go and do four or five minutes, perhaps, on the Bush thing, and then they’ll promo the rest, several times throughout the broadcast.

TERENCE SMITH: What’s going on behind that?

AV WESTIN: Well, I think what’s happened is we in the television news business have video-educated the American public to expect that they’re going to get more entertainment, or more news you can use. That used to be a pejorative phrase. “News you can use” was something that local did. Well, now, as a matter of fact, the networks are doing it all the time. They’re seeking out those same kinds of stories.

TERENCE SMITH: Explain what you mean by “news you can use.”

AV WESTIN: Well, it’s consumer-oriented news. It’s how to raise your children, if you have latch-key kids, how to deal with it. People who are engaging in good works, whose actions you might want to emulate. That’s “news you can use,” as opposed to, for the fifth day in a row, “There has been a debate about whether John Ashcroft should be approved.” In fact what will happen, I think, is that after a story has an initial impact, its coverage diminishes, day by day and something else begins to replace it.

TERENCE SMITH: What does that suggest? What does it seem that the producers have concluded about the viewers and their patience and appetite for hard news?

AV WESTIN: The business of television news has become the business of television news, and if you are concerned about the bottom line, you do three things:

First of all, you, you worry about ratings, and in some cases you go “down market,” or become more popular, to put the nicest spin on it. But you really go down market to get the widest possible viewer interest.

The second thing is you cut the size of your staff, and we’ve seen that at the networks. We see it at local too. But the networks, particularly, have smaller staffs overseas, in bureaus, and that means that they’re doing less enterprise reporting.

Third, you pay those people less, which means that maybe what’s happened to television news, generally, is that the “best and the brightest” have gone elsewhere.

AV WESTIN: Now minute by minute ratings, or, certainly, attention to ratings, now dominates the thinking. Again, if you’re going down market and you’re worrying about ratings, and you’re worrying about profits, you want to make sure your ratings are up. I think what we have seen here is a number of editorial decisions are made in order to either increase or hold the ratings.

In my view, one of the worst things that happened is when newspapers began to publish, each week, the ratings of the nightly news programs — thus equating higher ratings with good journalism.

Now those articles are read in the newsrooms, and they’re read, not only by the producers, they’re read by their bosses, and, now, in this age of conglomeration, their bosses are no longer news-oriented.

Now back, go back to the original days. In the original days, pieces ran a minute-15, a minute-30. I mean, we were criticized. I ran the ABC Evening News back then, and a minute-30 was a long time, but it was a minute-30 on today’s news, and the reporter was on the scene about today’s news.

We were much more closely attuned to the headlines of the day than we were to what was going to happen two, three, five weeks away.

Now what’s happened is, indeed, the pieces may be running longer. There’s no question about the fact that all of the network news programs have a closer look, eye on America, in depth, focus. They are longer. And then on occasion, they will be tied to the day’s news. But, by and large, most of them are features that have been in the works for quite some time and bear as little relationship to today’s news as a day-old newspaper. They just don’t tie in as much.

TERENCE SMITH: How candid are producers about those minute-by-minute ratings that they have?

AV WESTIN: I just wrote a book which was based on interviews, 135 interviews with men and women at all networks, in the news divisions, and at five major station groups, and at The NewsHour. I promised everybody anonymity in order to get candor, and in getting the candor, I uncovered what is really the dark secrets of the television business.


AV WESTIN: One, minute-by-minute ratings do play a role in how decisions are made. Two, because of minute-by-minute ratings, closet racism has emerged. There are definitely, at all the networks, and in most of the shops within those networks, decisions about who do we include in a story as the expert, and what stories to do, are affected by whether the subject involves African Americans or Asians. “Blacks don’t give good demos” is one of the quotes I got in that dark candor.

The third thing is that everybody, just by the fact that the only way they would talk to me is, is off the record, under the cloak of anonymity, is scared that the business is in such turmoil, and is changing so rapidly, that what used to be journalistic standards have gone away, and everybody is affected by the bottom line.

A new generation is taking over, not necessarily this week, but within a few years. Those men and women who are taking over grew up in the business in the last 10 years, and in the last 10 years is precisely when this concern for the bottom line, and minute by minute ratings, and all of that, have become the watchword of the day.

Unlike a previous era, when journalistic considerations were paramount, now, it is not there anymore.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you think the three flagship broadcasts have a clear sense of mission today?

AV WESTIN: All of them state that they no longer feel that they are an illustrated headline service. In my day, that’s what we thought we were. Now they say that they prefer to pick one or two stories and run with it at greater length. Whether that mission is accomplished with the purity of just journalistic judgments, or corrupted by the concern for bottom line is really what’s at issue.

TERENCE SMITH: Some years ago, evening news broadcasts were appointment television for anybody interested in the news. Are they today?

AV WESTIN: The evening news used to be appointment television. It no longer is because you can get your news elsewhere, and because there are a lot of other distractions that enable you to get your news or get information without sitting down in front of your tube at the dinner hour.

I think we all remember — certainly my generation–coming home at night, even when we weren’t working in the business and sitting down around the dinner table and watching Huntley-Brinkley or Doug Edwards, in the early days, Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds at ABC.

That no longer happens, I think, with the same regularity, because you don’t need to be there, and in terms of a generational thing, the Internet, and in dialing up, or, or whatever the dot-coms are you prefer, you can get that information, get the headline right there.

TERENCE SMITH: Your former colleague Mike Wallace, has posited a theory that, in due course, the evening news broadcasts will switch from their current time slots and go to an hour, say, between 10:00 and 11:00, in which they’ll present the hard news at the beginning, and the rest of it will resemble 60 Minutes, or a news magazine show. Do you think that’s likely?

AV WESTIN: I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely anymore. There was a moment, about three, four, five years ago, when the magazine shows were proliferating across the board.

They were on at 10:00 and Dateline, in particular, had a hard news top. They did a story that was at length off today’s news, and then they would have their normal features.

And I think that it was quite possible, at that moment, but television is still an entertainment medium, and although the profits were higher than some of the losing entertainment programs, as soon as the managers of the networks can find a program that will, for less money than some $2 million movie, make them a profit, the magazine shows will go away, or will diminish. And we’re seeing that — it’s happening already.

CBS, at one time, had Street Stories, it had 48 Hours, it had 60 Minutes II. It was filling up its weeknight primetime, and as soon as “Survivor” came along, goodnight to that.

And at ABC, 20/20 was across the board. Now it’s, for a variety of reasons, back to being 20/20 and Primetime Live, but it’s now down to two programs because along came “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”

TERENCE SMITH: So a good entertainment show will drive out news?

AV WESTIN: Every time. It’s the tradition of it. There’s no question about it. Listen, going back to, to the early days of television — and these gray hairs remember it quite clearly — the people who ran the networks used to believe that news programming belonged at the dinner hour and in the Sunday morning ghetto. The idea that a network news program could move into primetime and stay there was just anathema.

Now I ran 20/20 at ABC News, and the only reason we managed to stay in there was because, number one, our ratings went up, principally when were doing more interesting stories, and Barbara Walters joined us, and, secondly, we were, we were doing that program for about $400,000, or less, an hour, and a cop show was in the area of $800,000 to a million or $1,200,000. So the profit we were generating was just extraordinary.

TERENCE SMITH: What does it say to you, that these three flagship broadcasts are still anchored by three white men in their ’60s, who have been there for years?

AV WESTIN: Habit. The choice of anchors has, until now, been a sort of logical progression of watching an individual who had star quality and ability to communicate and an ability to interest viewers to stay with them, and you develop a loyalty, and that’s what the whole essence of news viewing is. Television news viewing is habit viewing. If you like the anchor, and if you like the show, it’s unlikely you’re going to change to somebody else.

What is happening is, first of all, I think this is the last class of star anchors. They’re going to be replaced, if not in the next immediate generation, but one generation down, by people who do not bring to the parties the same credentials that the Rathers and the Jennings and the Brokaws, and the Cronkites before them, and the Reynolds and the Smiths, and you can see there’s a diminution of their credentials.

The second thing you can look at is where the network news budgets are going. It used to be that the news division’s budget stood in support, almost entirely, of the network evening news. That’s no longer the case.

They now stand in support of the magazine shows, they stand in support of the morning programs, because those programs generate revenues and bring back more money to the coffers, to the bottom line than any other entity.

So the evening news has essentially been diminished. It’s no longer the flagship. Just as network news, which used to be the El Dorado, the top of a mountain where everybody who wanted to get into the business fought their way through the wars of the local stations because they wanted to get to work for the network. That’s no longer the case either.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you forecast five or ten years down the road? Will we see three evening news broadcasts on the principal networks? Will they look largely as they have for these many years?

AV WESTIN: We’ll probably see quite a revolution. Number one, I think that the public’s desire for news and information will lead viewers to various niches, whether it’s The NewsHour or whether it’s watching it on some part of cable — I mean, a CNBC which will dominate business news, and things of that sort. Or whether it’s a Nightline, which is a particular kind of program at a particular time of day. I think that’s where the serious news viewer will go in order to see the news. And the Internet, we can’t really tell, yet, where that’s going to go.

TERENCE SMITH: And the evening news?

AV WESTIN: I think the evening news, at its length, became the flagship, because the owners of the networks, in those days, wanted to deliver to the public, at least once a day, something that was a payback for letting them make all that other money in the entertainment side.

If you look at who owns the television networks today, they may pay lip service but the whole business of “jewel in the crown,” which is what CBS Evening News used to be. With all due respect to the gentlemen who are now running CBS, they are salesmen. They are entertainment people. They are not news. And the same thing can be argued, I think, with equal strength, that the Disney people do not have that direct tie to the news people at ABC.

GE got religion along the way, and have turned [NBC] into something which transcends not only network, but cable. And, I think, there we might see a longer investment of support for evening news. But by and large, five to ten years out, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some reasonable excuse found not to do it.