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Home > Publications > Quill > Network executives say evening news shows remain viable


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Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Network executives say evening news shows remain viable

By Meredith O'Brien

Two of the three honorees wore tuxedos and stood on stage as an audience of bejeweled Hollywood television celebrities stood and applauded emphatically. The third member of the trio loomed behind them: a silent image on a screen. As footage of decades’ worth of the trio’s work was played, words that had been used to describe them lingered in the air:

Anchors in times of trouble.

The electronic Mount Rushmore on the journalistic landscape.

While the ABC program Lost won the Emmy that September night for the best dramatic series, those being honored on stage for their contributions to television news over the past quarter-century were still coming to terms with real life loss. Just a month earlier, Peter Jennings, ABC World News Tonight’s anchorman since the 1980s, succumbed to lung cancer. Jennings’ newly retired competition, NBC’s Tom Brokaw and CBS’s Dan Rather, stood in front of the urbane anchor’s photo.

“We had hoped he could be here tonight so that we could have a reunion tonight, a celebration,” Brokaw said. “Peter will have a place in this brotherhood forever.”

If Brokaw and Rather looked grieved and lost, then so too did the evening broadcast network newscasts, at least in the eyes of media critics. Within the span of a year, the three anchormen of the 6:30 p.m. programs had left the nation’s airwaves. Brokaw, the leader of the top-rated nightly newscast, had planned his retirement well in advance, christening an heir -– Brian Williams -– long before his official departure.

After Rather left the anchor chair in early 2005 following the 2004 presidential election scandal over a 60 Minutes II broadcast he anchored about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, his network was scrambling about what to do with a permanent replacement and how to restore the news network’s battered image. And Jennings, who announced on air in April 2005 that he had lung cancer and would be temporarily stepping down from his anchor spot, never returned to grace television screens and died in the summer. It wasn’t until late 2005 that ABC finally decided to replace Jennings with an anchoring duo – Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff. As of the publication of this piece, CBS had yet to decide who would take over at the helm of the CBS Evening News, while longtime CBS newsman Bob Schieffer continued to fill in at the third place newscast.

With the three household names in the news business gone, media writers began pointing to the decadeslong ratings free fall for the 6:30 p.m. newscast genre –- a precipitous ratings plunge since the halcyon days of Walter Cronkite, a 30 percent drop since 1991, according to Nielsen -– and declaring it home to an older skewing audience that was dying off or tuning out in droves every year.

The three broadcast news networks, still the heavyweights in the news business commanding an average of 25 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, say that they’re still relevant, daring people to point to another form of news media that still reaches an audience as vast as theirs. That aging audience -– averaging in the late 50s to 60s -– still makes networks a nice profit, the TV journalists say. And while cable news networks get all the press as the up-and-coming medium (increasing its ratings nearly threefold during the past seven years), they pull in upwards of only 5 million viewers on an average weeknight. That’s putting CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and Headline News’ ratings together.

But the producers of the big three nightly newscasts aren’t taking the declaration of the 6:30 p.m. programs’ extinction lightly. They’ve been devising plans to lure those younger viewers and the ones who no longer tune in. They’ve started putting video online, Web logs (blogs), webcasts, pod casts and video logs. NBC’s Brian Williams even answers viewers’ e-mails. But will their efforts be enough to save the genre that made Cronkite the most trusted man in America?


Media critics say it’s over

OK, let’s go to the obituary writers first, to those who’ve said that it’s not a matter of whether a newscast that airs in the dinner hour when growing numbers of Americans are still working or commuting will die, it’s just a matter of when.

Here’s a sampling of comments from the overwhelming chorus of critics who say it’s time for the networks to pull the plug on the half-hour broadcasts, concede to a changing American lifestyle in a diversified, 24/7 media environment, and revolutionize themselves:

“Unless you are a certain age, the notion of making an appointment with an interlocutor to fill you in on the day’s events seems quaintly anachronistic.” –- Andres Martinez, The Los Angeles Times, August 2005.

“The 6:30 p.m. time slot might have worked in the ’60s, when more families tended to gather around the set at that time. But the average American commuting time is now 26 minutes (in some big media markets it’s even longer), and Mrs. Cleaver isn’t at home with dinner waiting any more –- she’s also racing home from the office. Even some media reporters (wink, wink) can’t manage to turn on the tube until, say, 7:30.” –- Jarrett Murphy, The Village Voice, March 2005.

“(The) question that’s been kicking around the TV business for years –- ‘Is the end of the evening newscast at hand?’ –- seems to finally have an answer. Yes, evening news audiences have plunged, as viewers tune into Seinfeld reruns and catch the news on cable or the Internet. Momentum in TV news right now is in the morning shows, which generate far more money than their evening siblings. Plus, the TV-news audience is aging and becoming less attractive to advertisers. And it’s hard to imagine that the 18-34s surfing Google News will suddenly start watching NBC Nightly News.” – John M. Higgins, Broadcasting & Cable, August 2005.

“(Broadcast network nightly newscasts are) on at 6:30 p.m., a time when only the elderly can watch them. Everyone else is commuting, eating dinner or helping the kids with their homework. That, more than anything, explains why the combined network-newscast audience has declined from about 50 million to fewer than 30 million over the past couple of decades. People work longer hours and lead more hectic lives than they did 20 years ago. The networks haven’t kept pace.” -– Dan Kennedy, former media critic, now Northeastern University journalism professor, guest-writing on CBS’s blog “The Public Eye,” October 2005.

“Yes, NBC, ABC and CBS still draw more viewers to their evening casts than do the all-news cablers, and by a wide margin. But it remains an ever-eroding institution, mostly because the concept of people getting their news all in one place has grown hopelessly antiquated. … The days when a network news anchor/journalist could really make a difference in exposing issues and affecting change are long a thing of the past. I mean, when was the last time you even watched an evening newscast? Think hard now.” –- Ray Richmond, The Hollywood Reporter, December 2005.

“Talking heads are dead. Forget the Internet sucking away younger viewers -– they don’t watch network news in any great number and haven’t for years. Network news watchers are older. Much older. … There’s no real allure to the nightly network news without the comforting attraction of the iconic anchors (Brokaw, Jennings, Rather). Without them, you’ve got 22 minutes of storytelling that the bulk of the available demographic has already either read online or will check out later in the night on cable. Let’s recap: Outdated delivery system. Airs too early. Appeals to declining, elderly audience.” -– Tim Goodman, The San Francisco Chronicle, December 2005.

Following Jennings’ death in August 2005, critics went a step further and started to question whether there’s a future for the mega-star, influential anchor:

“Peter Jennings was off the air for only four months, after the longtime ABC World News Tonight anchor told the public on April 5 (2005) that he had lung cancer. But his death Sunday had the sudden, nostalgic tint of someone who had been absent much longer. It brought people up short, even those who rarely watch or think much about network news anymore. Jennings, like the recently retired Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, had become semirelics of 20th-century TV journalism, pre-emptively dimmed by a morphing media culture and dwindling viewer numbers long before they ever left the air. They are linked together, in the parlance of ancient Rome, as the triumvirate. Their studio suits and on-location flak jackets were like togas, their faces like carved stone.” –- Steven Winn, The San Francisco Chronicle, August 2005.

“Within five years, people will be saying, ‘I want the news about Jordan,’ and they’ll type ‘Jordan’ into their handheld device, and up will pop the news about Jordan that they want, nothing else. … There won’t be anchors. There won’t be people introducing the stories. Consumers won’t have the time or the need for that. They’ll just be getting the news they want, when they want it, in whatever form they want it.” –- Jonathan Klein, CNN president, to New York Magazine’s David Blum, November 2005.

“With the death of Peter Jennings, the anchor for the ABC News evening program, America officially moved beyond the days when three men and three networks dominated television news. After Walter Cronkite’s reign as the premier voice of news in the 1960s and 1970s, the star power was divided among Dan Rather of CBS News, Tom Brokaw of NBC News and Mr. Jennings. With all three now off the air, that power to present the news divides and subdivides again, almost geometrically, into an army of new voices and an array of less-famous faces.” -– The New York Times, editorial titled, “The Last Anchor,” August 2005.


Just the facts

So are these critics right? It depends on who you ask, how you read the numbers in the ever-expanding media universe. But one thing everyone can agree on is this: The ratings for the 6:30 p.m. broadcast news programs have been plummeting. But so, too, have the ratings share for top 10 entertainment programs, argue the network news folks.

In the 1970-71 television season — before cable — the big three broadcast networks ruled the roost, with their evening broadcasts pulling in a combined 75 share of the television audience. Fast forward

35-plus years, into a world of hundreds of television stations, 24/7 all-news stations, on demand viewing, personal computers, the Internet, blogs, iPods and cell phones with mini-TV screens. The choices for news consumers are voluminous. During the last full television season in 2004-05, the three evening news broadcasts got a 37 share.

What about the eyeballs?

According to Nielsen data, during the 1991-92 television season, a total of 36.7 million viewers tuned in to the 6:30 p.m. news broadcasts. Today, the numbers for the 2005-06 season as of early December showed an average total audience of 25 million, a loss of more than 30 percent (about 11 million viewers).

Many of those consumers are switching to cable news. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s study “The State of the News Media, 2005,” cable news ratings for both daytime and primetime (this included the talk/analysis programming, such as The O’Reilly Factor) from 1997 to 2004 increased by 289 percent, boosting cable news viewership from 1.4 million to 5.5 million. Over the same time period, the three 6:30 p.m. network broadcasts lost 17 percent of their viewers, going from 34.7 million in 1997 to 28.8 million in 2004. Still, that’s 5.5 million as compared to 28.8 million.

The evening broadcast advocates are quick to point out that they’re not the only ones who are losing news consumers because of the wealth of options. Their newsprint counterparts have been losing readers for decades. The most recent circulation numbers for the top 20 newspapers in the country show that 18 of those publications lost weekday circulation in the past year, according to an Editor & Publisher report in November 2005. Combine the readership of those 20 newspapers – 13.5 million – and you still don’t get close to the 25 million viewers regularly watching the nightly news.

So who, aside from the cable news divisions, is getting all these viewers and readers fleeing the network newscasts and the nation’s largest newspapers? According to Nielsen/NetRatings, MSNBC (which is home to the NBC “Nightly News” site) got 23 million unique viewers in October 2005, putting it second on the list of top news Web sites behind Yahoo! News, which had 25 million unique hits. CNN was at number three, with 22 million hits. Print organizations, such as Gannett Newspapers, The New York Times, USA Today, the Tribune Newspapers and Knight Ridder Digital were all in the top 10, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

And the evening newscasts still make a profit. “Despite the loss of viewers, the three evening news programs remain cash cows, generating about $100 million a year,” wrote USA Today’s Peter Johnson. An August 2005 Broadcasting & Cable report said the three evening newscasts sold $466 million in ads in 2004 and “generally coax more money out of advertisers for viewers who do tune in.”


Premature Obituary

Ask John Reiss, executive producer of NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams, whether, despite the ratings drop, the 6:30 p.m. newscast genre is on its last legs. You’ll get a resounding, “No.”

“I think people have been prematurely writing the obituary for us for the past 25 years,” Reiss said in a telephone interview. “You look at our ratings. Is there a downward trajectory? Yes, there is.”

But then he asks this question: Hasn’t all network programming lost its once mammoth share of the television audiences it used to command when there were only a handful of stations from which to choose?

“The future of the half-hour nightly newscasts is inseparable from the future of the broadcast networks themselves,” argued Andrew Tyndall, founder of the Tyndall Report, which has analyzed network news content since 1987. “They will continue to decline at the same rate as the networks, no faster, no slower,” he wrote in an e-mail to Quill.

Barbara Cochran, who has worked at both NBC and CBS and is now president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, agrees.

“I’ve been hearing about the death of the evening newscast for practically the entire time I’ve been in news,” she said. “There’s no question there has been a decline in audience, but it still is a very large number that dwarfs the size of the cable audience for any given program. … The fact that the numbers are as high as they are (says) there’s still a desire by the public to get an authoritative summary of the news of the day.”

And that’s the networks’ strongest argument, some say: Authority. Gravitas. Solemnity. A reliable, calm anchorperson on whom you can depend. Every weeknight.

While some dismiss the impact an anchor may make in the ratings, others maintain that’s what distinguishes ABC, CBS and NBC from their cable brethren: While there’s a stream of interchangeable talking heads on cable all day long chatting about anything that may be happening — from a car chase to a breaking story that may wind up seeming insignificant in the context of the day’s news — network newscasts have a firm, steady hand in the form of the anchor who provides one of the three “official” news summaries of the day.

“Cable news has a lot of promise to fill the needs of the viewers,” said Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader at the Poynter Institute, “but sadly, too often (it leads) to shout fests, celebrity trials and missing women channels.”

CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves shook things up in the TV news world last year when, while talking to New York Times Magazine reporter Lynn Hirschberg, he described several things he wanted to do to change his number three nightly newscast, including getting away from the concept of the one “voice of God” anchor format. Earlier in 2005, he’d publicly toyed with the idea of having multiple anchors, about tapping Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, the star of the news satire program The Daily Show. Then, while discussing revolutionizing the CBS Evening News, Moonves told Hirschberg: “On the one hand, we could have a newscast like The Big Breakfast in England, where women give the news in lingerie. Or there’s Naked News, which is on cable in England. I saw a clip of it. It’s a woman giving the news as she’s getting undressed. And then, on the other hand, you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between.”

Although people may dismiss the musings as examples of Moonves trying to be provocative in order to stimulate significant change -– he’s since backed away from the comments — not everyone thinks a revolution away from the “boring people” is necessary.

“I still think there’s nothing that’s more important to our viewers than the person who says, ‘Good evening,’ ” NBC’s Reiss said. While NBC could have the best producers, correspondents and researchers in all of journalism, it would be pointless if the audience didn’t connect with Brian Williams, he said. “If people didn’t like Brian, people wouldn’t watch. You cannot underestimate the importance of the anchor. It’s the person you are inviting into your living room every evening. That’s about as intimate as it gets on TV.”

CBS News spokeswoman Kelli Edwards declined to comment for this story, and ABC News spokeswoman Cathie Levine did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment.

“People still tune in to the networks,” RTNDA President Cochran said. “They look for that familiar person who they’ve come to know over the years.”

Media critic Mark Jurkowitz countered by saying, “The era of the voice of God anchor is going.” Jurkowitz, the media writer for the Boston Phoenix, a gig he formerly held at The Boston Globe, said that while he thinks “huge celebrity” evening news anchor people aren’t necessarily big audience draws any more, the networks still have clout. “(The 6:30 newscasts aren’t) what they used to be,” he said. “There’s still nothing that challenges it. They’re still the biggest dog in the yard.”


Evolution, not revolution

Those who work in the network news business acknowledge they have to lure younger viewers, win back former ones and stave off ratings losses. In an April 2005 interview with The Boston Globe, CBS Evening News temporary anchor Schieffer acknowledged that the networks have got to modernize.

“I think people come to the news at 6:30, and they already know what the news is,” Schieffer told the paper. “We have to evolve into something beyond what the standard 6:30 broadcast was. What you can do is you can add perspective, you can add a bit of analysis. … We’re at the end of an era. There’s no question about that. Unless (the newscasts) evolve into something other than a summary of the day’s news, I think they will go away.”

As part of that evolution, networks are putting their content online. Nightly news Web sites now feature blogs, podcasts and video logs. Through on-demand content, they’re offering access to their news packages and programming to those who are stuck on major highways at 6:30 p.m.

NBC, for example, started offering a free webcast, a replay of the Nightly News, at 10 p.m. EST on its web site in November. Its anchorman, Williams, began writing a blog in which he sometimes takes shots at his own broadcast, in May 2005. “You have to have multiple platforms because that’s where the people are,” said NBC’s Reiss. After Williams’ heavily promoted interview with President Bush in December, footage that didn’t make it onto Nightly News, along with the transcript, was posted on the program’s Web site. Williams also live-blogged his day with the President as he ventured from stop to stop with Bush.

In July, CBS started its blog, “The Public Eye,” written by a staff that says its Web site “cannot be fired by anyone at CBS News” and whose paychecks come from CBS Digital Media, touting it as letting viewers behind the scenes of its news operation. Additionally, the Evening News Web site offers free video clips from its broadcast.

At ABC, which announced in December its intentions to start offering a special, live broadcast for West Coast viewers this year, also will begin offering versions of its reports online — including unaired parts of interviews — during the afternoon and evening hours, according to an ABC News media release. One of its two new anchors, Vargas, started a blog in December 2005 about her experiences in Baghdad. The World News Tonight Web site promises to retool its program’s blog, “The Blue Sheet,” by early this year.

Analyst Tyndall thinks the multiplatform concept has the potential for network newscasts to broaden their reach.

“Their opportunity for growth is through other distribution means, outside of the broadcast,” suggests Tyndall. “The story packages now seen on the nightly newscasts will be downloaded more and more in a video on-demand format. There is no reason why they should not be the news leader for a younger online audience in the future.”

Tyndall said the 6:30 broadcast will be transformed into “a promotional platform to attract viewers to download individual story packages at their own convenience at any time during a 24-hour news cycle. … As the most visible aspect of the news divisions’ 24-hour online presence, they will not be anachronistic at all.” And because the nightly news packages are “more densely sourced, more tightly edited, more carefully written and cover a wider array of topics than in any given half-hour on the cable channels,” the online presence will make the networks competitive on a new level, he said.

Cochran thinks of the 6:30 broadcasts in terms of brand.

“One of the things that may happen is that the evening newscast has to define itself differently,” she said. “ABC News is talking about doing something live for the west coast. They’re encouraging their anchors to write things for the Internet. Brian Williams is the first network anchor to start his own blog. The evening news brand is going to be spread across different platforms. The audiences are not going to want to get that evening news summary only at 6:30 at night. So I think it’s very smart for the networks.”

On the heels of a television season in which a drama about a group of people marooned on an island following a plane crash won an Emmy, Reiss doesn’t see the evening network newscast in such dire straits, marooned at 6:30 with no help on the horizon.

“We consistently have broadcasts that would be in the Nielsen Top Ten,” he said. “That’s not the sign of a dying medium.”

And he’s got a point.

Putting aside the fact that the nightly newscasts don’t air in prime time, the 2004-05 ratings for the three half-hour newscasts combined pulled in 25.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That would put the 6:30 genre at No. 4, just ahead ABC’s hit dramedy Desperate Housewives, which got a season average of 23.7 million viewers each week.

“There are about 25 to 30 million people who are home watching us,” Reiss says. “Go find 20 to 30 million people who are watching anything else at that hour.”


Meredith O’Brien is a freelance writer and teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts.

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