Reports of Network News’ Demise Premature

Apr 25, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Veteran newsman Sam Donaldson declared network news “dead” last week during a panel discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, adding, “The monster anchors are through.”

He said that if there were a huge breaking story, people would be more likely to turn to cable news outlets or the Internet, at least in part because the major broadcasters would be hesitant to turn off profitable programming to make room for news reports.

Having long respected Mr. Donaldson’s take-no-prisoners style of broadcast journalism, I understand his point of view. He is correct that there has been a huge change in the way people get news and even in what type of news they want. However, I think it is far too early to write obituaries for NBC, ABC or CBS News.

It would be easy to refute Mr. Donaldson by pointing out that under Brian Williams, NBC’s “Nightly News” has been doing very nicely. And ABC News, even with the illness that has struck the classy Peter Jennings, isn’t far behind.

To find the real answers, I decided to focus on CBS News, the onetime Tiffany of news operations, which has just been through a bruising year.

What I found was a solid organization that has rebounded from the dark days of last fall quite nicely and is turning a profit. Its nightly news is still mired in third place, but with interim anchor Bob Schieffer bringing a new, collegial tone to the proceedings, things have begun to look up. The sense of crisis has passed.

“The pleasant surprise to me is not how comfortable Bob is,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward told me last week. “That’s one of his great strengths. It’s that people have noticed that by doing just a few tweaks, he and [executive producer] Jim Murphy have really created a broadcast that feels quite different.”

Dan Rather had a terrific run but had become a lightning rod for a lot of criticism, both for obvious reasons, like the mishandled Bush memo story last fall, and for not-so-obvious reasons, like his powerful approach, or what Viacom co-President Leslie Moonves has called the “voice of God”- style of news delivery.

“This is not a knock on Dan,” Mr. Heyward said. “This is about building a broadcast that is an authentic reflection of Bob’s style and persona.”

A source at Viacom/CBS had said earlier that Viacom and CBS management wanted to retool CBS News by early summer. Now that timetable has been stretched to later in the year, and the mandate is no longer revolution, but rather to continue down the path of using each broadcast to showcase the best reporters and biggest stories.

Mr. Heyward is the first to agree that when big news happens, people have lots of ways to get the headlines quickly. However, he disagrees with those who say that makes the evening news obsolete, at least if it is done properly.

“You’re right, technology has changed our business seismically,” Mr. Heyward said. “And the evening news seems to be responding to that. Because, ironically, the more information available, the more choices people have, the more unfiltered information is out there in real time or in media that aren’t subject to the checks and balances that traditional journalists are, the more valuable a news summary will be. So the challenge for us, forgive the clich%E9;, is to provide added value that’s not available elsewhere.”

CBS News will not turn the evening report into a version of a morning show or make it an entertainment vehicle or use multiple anchors in different cities. Nor will it follow ABC News and launch a round-the-clock digital news channel or create a business channel or even a cable news chat channel like MSNBC. Mr. Heyward said there is also no current thinking about merging with any other news operation, though he did admit executives of CBS and Viacom had some preliminary talks with CNN that didn’t get very far.

What CBS and others in news are discussing is how to ride technology to the next level. As TV viewing shifts from push technology that gives you choices to pull technology through which the viewer makes the choices, what happens to news?

The Viacom/CBS source told me the company is already looking at how video-on- demand might make news available when the viewer wants it, rather than on a fixed schedule. “We don’t know if cable news is the future,” the source said. “We may jump right over that. We want to go right from broadcast to wireless, IPTV and VOD. We believe in the next three to five years there are going to be more changes than there have been in the last 50 years in terms of delivery of [news] product.”

Mr. Heyward believes bloggers will play a role in that future, and he welcomes it. “Bloggers are valuable in a couple of ways,” he said. “They provide feedback. They are certainly another form of checks and balances, especially when they feel someone had been unfair. … I think they will exist alongside [major news organizations] and don’t seem likely to replace it.”

Other challenges abound, beginning with how to develop the next generation of news superstars at a time when the marketplace is much larger. Then there’s how to react to Fox News, which has shown there is a loyal audience for news with a point of view; how to get younger viewers to watch the news; and of immediate concern to Mr. Heyward, how to make complicated but important stories more relevant to viewers of all ages.

“One of my things is why do we always have to leave the tastiest dish back in the newsroom?” said Mr. Heyward, who believes Mr. Schieffer’s unscripted chats with reporters are a way to have that as part of the mix. “They are stressing original reporting and telling people something you can’t get on local news or elsewhere during the day.”

So, Mr. Donaldson, it seems to me your eulogy is premature. Broadcast news is going through a transition at every level, but it is far from dead. In a world with too many voices, these powerful brands will be more important, not less. With instant access to information, analysis, context and experience become more valuable, not less. And in the end all these choices will not kill well-run operations, but rather make them even more relevant to news consumers in the future.