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Often the first question people would ask about a story is, ‘How much does it cost?’ And I didn’t really experience that a lot at NBC, quite frankly.
CBS Evening News
Today’s network news broadcasts are advertising vessels, not intended to be a principal source of news and information. Being a principal source of news and information means delivering what people need to know about their communities and their nation at a level of completeness and credibility sufficient for them to function as responsible citizens.
The problem with measuring news program value only by its ability to attract audience is that it over promises its legitimacy. Appearing to be legitimate, probative, credible and engaged are essential for the evening news programs to attract serious news and information consumers.
It has been more than two decades since the content of evening news programs was restricted to legitimate, probative and credible news. When Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News broadcast the three networks delivered all-news content. That era ended with deregulation and big media takeover of television networks.
The mixture of genuine news with content meant to entertain was described by Walter Cronkite, shortly after the arrival of Van Gordon Sauter as president of CBS news , as infotainment. Whatever it may be called, the introduction of non news content in the guise of being legitimate news raises issues of credibility. It also introduced a state of conflict between experienced news people and profit-motivated producers that goes on to this day.
Some viewers are not interested in knowing what matters most in their lives so they exercise their right to choose by seeking entertainment content. With money on the line, network news executives found it expedient to include entertainment content in the evening news programs. Audience metrics and studies revealed that non-traditional news content, features, celebrity and tabloid content could bring far more viewers to evening news programs than any who might flee in the face of more entertaining, but less probative content.
Skewing, that is shifting the overall balance of news content from serious to entertaining, was successful because habitual news watchers don’t mind some lighter content while less dedicated news watchers are easily driven away by serious or what is sometimes called hard content. What changed after deregulation was how, and to what degree, each network sought to skew journalistic content to achieve higher ratings. Today, features, named segments, the look of on-air personnel, the manner and friendliness of the newsreader are fined tuned to optimize audience attraction. As a result, today’s evening news broadcasts are continuously adjusting their appeal to optimize audience metrics.
Such a system largely abandons traditional news judgment, journalistic standards, ethics or what’s in the public interest, in favor of what attracts viewers. For news purists, audience metrics defile news by introducing non journalistic issues into every story decision. For producers too much news, or news that requires explanation, or which tends toward the boring, is antithetical to success.
As a result, audience interest profiles complicate news value decisions while cost impacts breadth and depth of coverage. The result is content that occasionally rises to excellence only to collapse into a shambles of incoherent and journalistically inconsequential palliatives in lieu of news.
Since being taken over by Katie Couric, the CBS Evening news has not only remained in last place in terms of total viewers as well as the advertising targeted 25-54 year old demographic, it continues to give up audience to its more successful competitors.
On balance, the CBS Evening News is no better, and certainly no worse as a source of news and information than either ABC World News, or NBC Nightly News. They are all variations on a theme — one in which the best combination of entertainment values produces a clear winner.
In recent decades the only contenders for being most watched have been Charlie Gibson’s ABC Word News and the current top rated evening news broadcast, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
There are high levels of stress in every network newsroom — and, fear of failure, or losing a well paying job if anything goes wrong. Those whose journalistic skills produce the news foundation for the broadcasts must make daily judgments about what must be included and what ought to be included in the news segment.
Every network has someone in charge of making news judgments. At CBS it’s Rick Kaplan, who serves as Executive Producer. Kaplan has a long and distinguished history in producing credible, probative and important news programming.
All of today’s network news programs suffer from the indignity of having to pretend to be legitimate news broadcasts when in reality they are infotainment programs. That wasn’t a problem in the days of Ed Murrow, John Chancellor, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. But it is a problem today — and one that has complicated CBS’ decision to insert television star and personality Katie Couric into what had always been a serious reportorial role at the CBS Evening News. The early kerfuffle about dress and features, combined with suggestions aimed at delivering a less serious journalistic foundation, complicated Couric’s job immensely.
While she has not made of herself a legitimate newsman, in the sense of Walter Cronkite, or Dan Rather, does not discredit Couric in the eyes of viewers far more prone to choosing a news program for its personalities than its journalistic content. Couric has taken a great deal of heat, made many gaffes by what she has said and done off camera, but in her three years at CBS she has made herself a competent anchor — and among the best interviewers in the history of network news.
At times all of the networks delve into important stories, or overseas trips to more fully connect their up-front personalities to stories and news makers. Such events are usually highly promoted, or an excuse to send the up-front person on a presidential trip to improve face recognition and simply to add to the illusion of up-front people being legitimate journalists.
CBS has promoted several Katie Couric trips in recent years including her trip to Iraq in 2008 in which she appeared with prominent generals and other news makers as if she were reporting real news on her own. CBS is not alone in such deceptions for NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charlie Gibson appear in similar settings — and for the same reasons — pursuit of advertising revenues, not expository journalism.
On Monday October 5th, 2009, CBS News undertook a dramatic and risky gambit. For nearly a full week, the network devoted the entirely of its broadcast time to reports on and about Afghanistan. The coverage was broad and inclusive in that it examined the U. S. mission — both history and today’s goals. It focused on matters of military strategy, political ramifications for the Obama administration, the legitimacy of Afghan president Hamid Karzi, voter fraud, Taliban incursion and a fractious Afghan power structure.
Not only was CBS’ three day series highly promoted and well produced, it aired with an intensity and energy rarely seen in television news today. It’s content, only hard news about U.S. actions and interests in Afghanistan, ran against nearly everything that matters in audience attraction and demographic makeup.
|Week of September 28, 2009|
|Week of October 5, 2009|
No matter, it turned out, for in advance of the first broadcast, CBS News and Sports president, Sean McManus was quoted as saying, “We’re not doing it for ratings.” Indeed, not — for nothing is more damaging to audience metrics than credible, probative and relevant news. The impact on CBS Evening News ratings were immense for the week’s ratings were the lowest in history for the CBS Evening News — down fully 10% [ 430,000 ] viewers from the week before.
For a news program that avoids what’s difficult, boring or far from home, such an intensive journalistic extravaganza comes at substantial risk. Serving up real and probative news occasionally is very different from an intensive and in-depth series about something of immense importance that had been under-reported for many years. To this McManus told Felix Gilette [ New York Observer ], “All the research shows that when you do stories on wars, normally, that doesn’t spike the ratings. We just think it’s important, as a news organization, to do this.”
CBS’ foray into all news revisited some of that networks storied history. It brought back memories of Morley Safer in Saigon, Dan Rather in the mountains of Afghanistan, and Walter Cronkite explaining to his countrymen, and his president, that the Vietnam war had been lost.
For the week of October 5th through the 9th, 2009, The CBS Evening News delivered wall to wall news that was well produced and journalistically of immense value. The fact that it was seen by about 430,000 fewer viewers was not likely a surprise to CBS — they know that their audience is largely not interested in hard news — and that they created that reality by their own actions.
For those who watched CBS that week the result was worth the price — although CBS has yet to say so. As the week unfolded one wondered if, after being the last place broadcast for as long as most viewers could remember, McManus and CBS were going to make one last stand. A stand that would determine if there were any viewers still interested in credible wall-to-all news.
That proved not to be the case, for on the next Monday, the lead story on Katie Couric’s CBS broadcast was about a loose balloon and a child in hiding.
Now we know that CBS News valued the missing 430,000 entertainment viewers more than the 5,250,000 news-seeking viewers that stayed with them all week.
Newsroom Magazine congratulates the talented reporters, producers, stringers, editors, videographers — and CBS News executives — for sharing with their nation a great moment in television news. For a fleeting moment you showed what television news can and ought to be doing every minute of every day.
In the end, what viewers saw that week was more than a war unfolding in Afghanistan, but equally the one still raging inside CBS News.