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Does network news still matter?

Tom Bettag

Former executive producer, Nightline, CBS Evening News

Tom Bettag

There are a lot of people -- and we're talking to some of them -- ... in this dot-com era, blogging era, who say: "Look, it's citizen journalism. It's democratic. We're going to go out and report the news, and we can do a better job than these old, elitist, now mainstream institutions of journalism." The other side of that, though -- and you get this from people, for instance, at a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times -- is "We're one of the few institutions that can put hundreds of reporters on television, hundreds of producers, cameras into the field to really cover something. Without us, what can bloggers do?" In that sense, bloggers are sort of parasitical.

Right. I think there's room for both, but I don't think that the Los Angeles Times, CBS, ABC is ever going to go away. There is going to be that need, and there are going to be people who like to sit and read blogs and write blogs. ... I know a couple of young kids who say, "Actually on television it's way too early to watch, but if you TiVo it at 6:30 at night, in one half hour there's this program called the evening news where they compress everything into a half hour. And you can zip through the commercials, and in 22 minutes, you can pretty well know what's going on and actually know what they're talking about." And there's this discovery of this new thing.

I think there will be people who want that, and there will be people who want blogging, and that they both get what they need is terrific. ...

We are in a pretty partisan era. Don't you think that there's a lot of pressure now where people say, basically, "Reinforce my opinions"? ...

I don't buy that. I mean, that is a niche, and it works for certain people. Those audiences are minuscule. The 24-hour cable networks -- I mean, Fox can have more people than the others, but that is a tiny, tiny group of people. It's 2 million or 3 million out of this huge nation. ... Having talk radio and Rush Limbaugh being enormously successful and popular ... doesn't mean that he's talking to anything like the mainstream of the American people. ... You don't have to talk to just left or just right. In fact, talking to either one of those I think narrows you, and there's lots of money to be made if you're just trying to make money by talking to the mainstream.

So network news, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, Washington Post -- not going to disappear?

Not going to disappear. I've been hearing since 1985 about the death of the evening news, and, you know, wake me when it happens. People have been talking about this forever and ever, and there are always going to be smart people who want to know what went on today.

 
Ted Koppel

Former anchor, Nightline

Ted Koppel

Yes, but I still think it will be another generation or two before the networks become irrelevant. They're not now. The fact of the matter is the evening news programs are still seen collectively by -- I would guess ABC, NBC and CBS news may still get about 30 million viewers a night among the three of them. That's a huge number, and that's not going to go away for the foreseeable future. If you really want to make a statement, you've still got to do it on one of the big three networks. Now Fox maybe can be included in that, but I don't think Fox, for the most part, is up there yet either.

One of the great illusions of the past 10, 15 years has been the public's perception -- and again, I think this is Ted Turner's brilliance -- that CNN is everywhere. No, they're not. At their best time of day -- I don't know what it is now, it used to be the Larry King show at 9:00 in the evening -- they might have somewhere between 1 and 2 million viewers. Well, you know, on the worst night we had at Nightline, at 11:30, 3 to 4 million viewers, and on our better nights, we'd have 5 million viewers, sometimes 6. But 25 years ago, we had 10, 12, 14 million viewers, and those days are over forever. There's nothing they can do to bring that back, because the audience is broken into a million pieces.

Does that bother you as a journalist trying to reach a large audience? At Discovery, you won't have the audience you had at Nightline.

... We'll see what those shows do, but you have a couple of things going for you at a place like Discovery that you don't have at the network. Number one, there's an overseas reach. We have 160-some-odd countries overseas who get Discovery. ... Number two, if Discovery likes a program, they'll play it twice, three times, five times, eight times, so it may be that for our first showing, we get, let's say, 1.5 [million], 2 million viewers. ... By network terms, that's not a big audience, but after it's been seen three or four times, cumulatively you will have reached about 6 or 7 million viewers. Now you're in the same ballpark as the networks. …

But the networks are still very powerful. They can still do things that nobody else can do: They are still a town forum; they are the place that everyone can get to. Not everyone has cable. Not everyone has bought Discovery or HBO or Showtime, so we have a much smaller universe here within the United States than the networks do, but a larger universe around the world. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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