Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Sunday, November 28, 2021

With credibility scandals, the retirement of long-tenured anchors, and more competition than ever, the future of network news operations seems shaky.

Unless you see the forest for the trees, and notice that network news still commands viewership numbers that dwarf the most buzzworthy cable programs and online sources:

Most evenings, nearly 30 million people watch one of the three [network] programs. Ratings have been sinking steadily, but that’s the case for most shows in a fragmented television world; evening news ratings have dropped at a rate 4 percent slower than prime-time broadcast fare over the past decade, according to Nielsen Media Research.

For all the attention they get, the three cable news networks — Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC — don’t even get 4 million viewers combined in an average prime time.

Not that it’ll be business as usual going forward:

All of the evening newscasts seemed to go through some sort of identity crisis in the pre-Sept. 11, 2001 world, wondering if a mostly no-nonsense look at the day’s top stories made sense anymore.

Those days are gone, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant whose firm, ADT Research, studies the content of each newscast.

“They’re very much like they were in the late 1980s, when they were still the flagship newscasts of the networks,” he said. “They’re serious newscasts dealing with domestic policy, politics and international news, with very little human interest, little water-cooler material. It’s a hard newscast.”

They all run a lot of health coverage, since most of their viewers are over 50, he said.

All had stories on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s ethics problems this month. That’s a story the network morning shows would barely touch, Tyndall said, evidence that the content of morning and evening newscasts are becoming more distinct.

To a large degree, the serious turn is a function of the times.

“For a while there, to say that something was a foreign news story was to be using a term that was offensive in some newsrooms,” said “Nightly News” executive producer Steve Capus. “I think what Sept. 11 said was that we shouldn’t be afraid to cover the world and America was hungry for a trusted service to look at what’s going on around the world.”

News executives say the evening programs have tried to be more explanatory, recognizing that many viewers have already had a chance to see headlines elsewhere.

Yet the presence of cable news is deceptive. Following industry leader Fox News, these networks have become more talk, less straight news over the last few years.

The notion that people can work late, skip the broadcast evening news and catch up later on cable isn’t necessarily true. Try to find a serious newscast on these networks in prime time, at least before Aaron Brown on CNN at 10 p.m. Eastern time, and you’ll be out of luck.

Even CNN Headline News — a dependable network that rotates newscasts every half-hour — plans to experiment with prime-time talk shows in the next year.

The services that were supposed to make the evening news obsolete are instead giving the broadcasters an opening.

Outside of the newsmagazines, the nightly news programs have also become one of the last refuges for packaged reports, where a correspondent gathers material throughout the day for a prepared story. Cable and local newscasts are instead dominated by reporters who stand in front of a camera on location and talk about what they know, a format that frequently sacrifices depth for a sense of immediacy.

How important is that personality-driven component in newscasts? Pundits and even some viewers claim the institution of the news overrides who delivers it, and personally I’m of a like mind on that. I don’t watch any television news, local or national, outside of one or two special news cycles per year. I feel I get more direct information from print and online sources.

Yet I know I’m in a minority. Most people prefer broadcast (and primarily television over radio) as their information channel, simply before it’s a more passive way of getting the news pushed to them. And in that context, the identity of the talking head that’s doing the talking takes on significance, simply by virtue of that role. Whether that’s merited or not is irrelevent: People perceive it that way, and that shapes public opinion and consent.

- Costa Tsiokos, Sun 11/28/2004 11:50:09 PM
Category: TV | Permalink |

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  1. Costa,
    You write very well. You should consider the Alliance’s Best of Me Symphony as a showcase for your best pieces. This week’s Symphony is at

    See what you think.


    Comment by gary — 11/29/2004 @ 05:52:34 PM

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