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Guest Commentary: Network Evening News Faces Uncertain Future

Nov 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

When I read that more television viewers watched the coverage of 9/11 on the 24-hour cable news channels than on the Big 3 networks, it became apparent that it was the dawn of a new day.
When Tom, Peter and Dan retire, it will be the end of an era. Let’s face it, in the early ’80s when these three anchors took their respective chairs, CNN was less than a year old, few TVs came with remotes and the Internet was just beginning. Tens of millions of people watched the nightly news.
Today there is a new generation of news consumers with different values. People are getting their news from the 24-hour news channels and the Internet and even on their cellphones. Nightly network news viewership is way down. A recent Pew study showed that for the first time, more viewers watched the cable networks than the evening news on CBS, NBC or ABC.
A closer look at the ratings tells an even more remarkable story. The 55-plus demographic group-those born before the baby boom-are watching more television today between 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.-the news hours-than the corresponding group did back in 1979. The catastrophic dropoff is in viewers born after 1945. In fact, an in-depth look at the ratings suggests that the popularity of the major anchors and the evening news format is not something that was ever meant to carry over to baby boomers (and the younger generations now entering their prime news-consumption years).
The startling conclusion may well be that the evening news was only a transitory phenomenon that had more to do with the particular needs and outlook of the generations born between 1900 and 1945 than anything else.
With growing costs of news gathering and declining revenues, it doesn’t take an MBA to figure out that something has to give. Thus the dilemma for the networks: What to do with the evening news?
NBC has two cable divisions over which to spread these costs, while ABC and CBS do not. Based on the level and composition of their ratings-and understanding that each of the current anchors have built a significant personal following that will not automatically flow over to their successors-it is arguable that the evening news broadcasts have now become an anachronism and should be scrapped as soon as the current generation of anchors has retired. However, there are those who feel it would be sacrilege to even think of removing the evening news, not to mention having to give back a half-hour of prime network real estate to the affiliates or find something else to do with it.
Based on everything we are seeing, it is fair to conclude that the outlook for the network evening news is decidedly gloomy. Predicting the demise of the evening news is far less complex than predicting exactly what type of news structure will follow it.
So with the facts being what they are, the conclusions are not good if you’re a television network trying to continue making profit on the nightly news. The networks most probably have already looked at the weekend evening newscasts and pondered their fate.
The first test may well come in 2004, when Tom Brokaw hands over the reins to Brian Williams. All eyes will be on the ratings to see whether the viewers are Brokaw-loyal or network-loyal.
Who is the next great anchor? Will there be one? Are Jennings, Brokaw and Rather the temporary occupants of an enduring throne or are they the last emperors? It will be the new technologies and lifestyles that become the deciding factors.
So … Goodnight, Tom. Goodnight, Dan. Goodnight, Peter. You’ve each been magnificent and you deserve all the accolades a fellow journalist can bestow upon you, but when you’re gone, it will be a new day and the end of the evening news as we have known it.
Jeff Alan is the author of the new book “Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News.”