The Digital Journalist
Twenty-One Minutes
Part 1
January 2005

by Ron Steinman

Tom Brokaw is gone. Dan Rather follows in March. Will Peter Jennings be far behind? Should we care? We know network anchors leaving is not news-that-we-can-use, or news that makes a difference, such as a major scientific discovery, nor even a salacious political scandal, but it gives some of us something to speculate about during the long, dark and cold nights of winter.

We are dealing with a part of our culture long dead: the anchor for a news show as icon. As a society addicted to the cult of personality, it is about time we recognize the end of an era. If I want my news on television, I turn to Headline News on CNN. It reads and sounds like a wire service, usually with a few words about a story, often backed by pictures and few, if any, reports from a correspondent getting face time. When I want more information and I am near my computer, I open any number of Web pages to get the details. Many people do the same. It affects how we think about news in the 21st century.

Does it matter who sits in the anchor chair to anyone but the anchor? I think not. Do not let the false humility of these men who have come into your homes for decades fool you or lull you into complacency about who they are and what they do. They believe they are our anchors, there to keep our often rocky ship steady. As captains in their industry, they fear that without them we will be lost to the dark forces that surround us, but they and the concept are surely an anachronism in this digital age.

Tom Brokaw

We should try to understand how we got here.

Some years ago, all-news radio WINS in New York had a slogan that summed up broadcast news and what it once stood for: "Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world."

WINS gave the listener news, weather, sports and traffic. Network newscasts (except for weather, sports and traffic, unless exceptional) did the same. Then, everyone knew where to go for his or her daily news fix. Head to one of the three networks and get what you needed about how you and others survived another day in a usually mean world. News, especially on the networks, is no longer the same. Airtime is down to 21 minutes most nights, and in the next few years the time will further diminish.

We once turned to local news for fires, shootings, the odd and fanciful in a neighborhood, and a hint of what would come later on the network. To meet the demand of the all-important affiliated stations, the networks created in-house syndication operations with national and international stories similar to what The Associated Press fed its subscriber newspapers. Local news in those days did not have reporters on location nationally or internationally as they do now.

Over recent years, with the presence of local reporters everywhere and the ease of broadcasting from anywhere, local news changed. The stations stopped covering only city hall and education, for example, and often led their newscasts with national and international news, followed by a derby of violence, crime and car chases. Local news directors in the 1980s told me the audience for their shows preceding the network broadcasts felt they had "seen that story so why should I look at it again," even if the network story had different pictures, a correspondent to report it, and better graphics. The affiliated stations thereby upstaged the network, making the once thought more important national newscast less important and less compelling.

Over the years, the networks, in an attempt to hold their audience, changed their content. They produced stories that tried to explain the news - "news you can use" (an awful concept designed to help people live better lives), many more soft features, and a belief that if they developed "exclusive" stories, a rare occurrence in TV, they would hold an already declining audience. It did not work. This, of course, is only part of the story, but one that has had an enormous effect on how the audience perceives the network newscasts.

With all the movement of key anchor people, and with all the problems that network news has in keeping its audience, ideas are spewing forth, especially from the print media, about how to solve the difficulties of the once sacred 30 minutes of airtime (for years no more than 22 minutes after commercials and opens, closes, throws, etc.) allotted to the evening newscasts. Though not yet buried, with the body still warm, everyone has a solution about how to handle those multimillion-dollar programs at the networks. Interestingly, almost all the suggestions for saving network news come from people who never worked in television and thus have little if any understanding of what really goes on.

Peter Jennings

I see suggestions from print reporters and columnists, even from those in the TV news business as to how to save the network news programs. What follows is not in the least exhaustive, and, for each of them, there are probably a hundred more. We should be aware that the audience for the three networks is still nearly 27 million people a night. Not bad, and the shows still make a ton of money, even though the audience is not the desired demographic and the commercials are geriatric-oriented. Advertisers are still spending big dollars to reach people who can spend it as they wish.

An idea I see frequently is to increase the half-hour news shows to a full hour. That will never happen because the affiliated stations, which in many ways control the networks, will never give up the lucrative advertising money they share for entertainment shows, which reach far bigger audiences. The affiliates get a smaller portion of the advertising dollar for any network news show because the ratings are lower. Money rules in broadcasting, just as it does in much of American life.

Some think that by increasing the time to one hour, the new network newscast will have more room for intelligent, thoughtful interviews and panel discussions to increase our awareness of the world. Do not bet it will happen or that a program will have that look. Do we forget that would duplicate the News Hour on PBS? The News Hour does its job well and is a viable alternative to the often boring and overly slick network shows. I do not believe we need three clones of PBS.

Another suggestion, one by Scott Pelley of CBS, thought to be a candidate for Dan Rather's seat, is to broadcast the show as a roving newscast from a different location at least once a week. I can see the business managers and accountants choking on the high cost of a news operation already under attack, and the substantial loss of revenue for Viacom's shareholders. New and different venues starring the anchor on a regular basis will not attract viewers. Correspondents report from different places all the time, but ratings do not go up because of these reports. However, ratings do fall if the networks fail to cover breaking news from the place where it is happening. I will concede an anchor in a strange and exotic location might work when warranted, but that is rare and usually works for a limited time only. The movement of large numbers of people to produce the shows on location will make costs prohibitive.

It is worth noting that Brian Williams, the man who inherited Tom Brokaw's chair, suggests he visit different locations such as Toledo, Denver, and the middle of Kansas to meet with regular folk in America. That is very daring of you, Mr. Williams, but you best prepare for a substantial dip in audience, something I believe your masters will not accept.

Another recent suggestion is that reporters on TV speak the truth, whatever that means. The assumption is they do not. I thought reporters did, or at least voiced a version of it without too much editorializing or spin, all in the spirit of telling a good story. Others suggest the start time of

6:30 p.m. is wrong and should be later in the evening. Many years ago, I saw a proposal to start the network news at 10 p.m. and lengthen it to one hour. That died a quiet death because the entertainment side of the business refused to give up its lucrative hours to, of all things, news. Yes, it is true, Dateline and 20/20 and myriads other news magazines do fill the late-evening hours, but they are more entertainment than news.

Many observers of the TV news business really do not understand it. They often come up with unrealistic proposals they think are new, which are not, and which did not work in the past. Two-man anchor teams is one thought. They rarely worked. Huntley-Brinkley had great success because they were almost never on the set together; Chet Huntley was in New York, David Brinkley in Washington. ABC tried some forgettable male teams. And we must never forget the massive failure of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters at ABC. Lately, Connie Chung has been reminding anyone who will listen that CBS teamed her and Dan Rather in an experiment that lasted for less than two years and ended badly in 1995. That is more evidence for the network honchos that in today's nighttime network news world, two anchors will never succeed, especially if they are a man and woman.

Dan Rather

There is the occasional naive cry for a permanent female anchor for the evening news, but that goes nowhere, despite more women in executive seats at every network level. I am willing to wager that if America is not ready to follow the lead of a woman in politics, they will never accept a woman each night telling them about the tragedies and possible wonders of the day.

Before we blame the failure of network news on the recent compartmentalization of the various broadcast bands, or the impact of local newscasts on how viewers perceived the network news, it is worth looking back to a more innocent time when only three networks existed. Critics find it convenient to believe that the burst of energy from the Internet is to blame. Not so. I refuse to allow that the new forms of journalism are responsible for the downfall of a business where I practiced my craft for more than 30 years.

The real demise of network news on TV began almost 20 years ago in 1986, when the owners of CBS sold the company to Laurence Tisch. It is well documented how Mr. Tisch plundered the network, decimated the news division, and eviscerated the spirit of that great organization. I believe the broadcast journalists who ran CBS with dedication and an idealism that verged on a higher purpose, did not know what hit them and did not have the ability to fight back. When it came to fighting for their survival, they were not on Laurence Tisch's level. He demanded a stringent bottom line, saw the network - and especially the news division - as a profit center, which it never became, and he tore the network to pieces. He sold CBS in 1995 for a reported two billion dollars.

At NBC, something different took place, but it came close to having the same result. GE swallowed RCA in one gulp. Jack Welch, who ran GE, gave NBC to Bob Wright almost as an afterthought, as if to say, here is a toy, play with it, clean it up, and straighten it out. Make it profitable, especially the news division. That is how those of us who worked there then felt. NBC produced entertainment. NBC News presented, of all things, news, what we considered the real world. Both divisions existed on advertising dollars but news always got handouts from entertainment or we could not succeed in our modest mission. There were no gadgets, widgets, airplane engines, or anything plastic to make huge amounts of money for NBC News. NBC sold dreams. NBC News presented reality, but at a price. NBC News was an old-fashioned loss leader. "Give the audience a good product and that audience will stay with all your programs. The audience would believe one network delivers on all cylinders." That is what we lifers at NBC News assumed. It was not enough for Mr. Wright and Mr. Welch.

It became quickly apparent that Bob Wright and company had great difficulty in understanding the culture of NBC and especially the news division and those of us who worked in it. They, as Mr. Tisch at CBS, decided profit was more important that quality.

Flashback to China in 1987. After long and arduous negotiations with the Chinese, Beijing agreed to allow NBC News to broadcast for one week throughout the country. This included daily shows for Nightly News and a week's worth of programming on the Today show. It was a major breakthrough for the news division and it would cost a great deal of money. Because of the publicity value, NBC was willing to spend the money to be the first to broadcast from China. After the negotiations and after the production was in progress, Bob Wright became president of NBC. One of his first duties was to visit his small army of news personnel and technicians in China. He arrived as the shows were deep into production.

I was a senior producer for Today and would spend nine weeks in China creating 50 pieces, live and tape, that we would broadcast over the long week. We would originate live from the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and Shanghai, a formidable task that would take many people and much money.

The Forbidden City was our first venue. The senior staff of NBC News, including myself, escorted Mr. Wright over the grounds of the Forbidden City and the small village of trucks and vans we created to house our equipment and personnel. Putting it mildly, he was impressed and, I believe, flabbergasted at the number of people we had working on the shows, especially two hours of Today each day for five days. Mild mannered, yet steely, without much openness, and a rare, wry smile, Mr. Wright peppered us with questions about why we needed so much equipment and why we needed all these people to run it. We explained that everything and everyone was necessary so we could get on the air. In 1987, China was a backwater in terms of sophisticated equipment and trained technicians. We had to bring in everything at great expense from Europe and Hong Kong, and other parts of Asia. Bob Wright smiled as we explained what we were doing. We were sure he listened carefully. At one point, he asked why we couldn't have on-scene-only cameras to take pictures on location and have the anchor in the studio against a screen to make it look as if we were in the distant place we were describing. It seemed someone had coached him with that question, being that he was very new to the business. At that point, I slipped away. My exasperation sometimes got the better of me and got me into trouble, so I decided to move on. I had real work to do. Knowing myself, I thought it better to have the executives answer those questions.

Something was brewing inside Mr. Wright's head. I am not sure what, but at an expensive dinner in Hong Kong at the end of the trip he wondered if all the money we spent was worth the result. We thought yes, and said so. He was paying for the meal and we, I especially, did not want to insult our then gracious host. With Bob Wright's comments, I believe in retrospect, the end was near. He and his cohorts at GE had set their cost cutting in motion.

They would show us at NBC how to do things the right way. It would be downhill after that with never a chance for reverse.

Let me add that as a bonus for our work in China, a select few of us received four shares of GE stock and a beautiful, thin, engraved gold watch from Tiffany. I wondered about that watch for my remaining years at NBC and believed then, as I do now, that getting it at the midpoint in my career was an omen of things to come. After seeing Mr. Wright in China and Hong Kong, always in the company of others, I never interacted with him again and I rarely saw him in person, except at a few large gatherings.

By 1988, Bob Wright, now firmly in charge of NBC, started to cut the budget at NBC News, despite the rating success we had in China. The accountants were never happier reducing "profligate" budgets and reining in expenses. They had a cause and major support. We covered less news. Edit rooms lay fallow. NBC eliminated some bureaus and cut staff in others. NBC News, like CBS, its competitor down the street, would suffer the throes of lean times because, in the end, the bottom line was all. By the '90s, the three network news divisions were at times shadows of their former selves.

The Internet was only a gleam in some wizard's eyes. Cable was still an infant. Network news changed in a way that never allowed it to recover. When cable bloomed and the Internet blossomed, the networks were ripe for the taking and their downward spiral had already commenced.

Do more people turn to the Internet with its multitude of Web sites and journalist wannabes for their news? It is hard to say, but the audience for news on the Web is growing. Some blogs, the latest innovation born of the infinite space of the Web, and the desire for personal expression, do connect with their niche audiences, mostly on a visceral level. Yes, blogs occasionally break news. Yes, blogs are an alternative to mainstream or traditional news but they are often turgid and out of control. We must discriminate in how we use them. Most bloggers only comment, often by the seat of their pants. Blogs do not have the capability to gather news, which must come from somewhere. But blogs, despite their problems, have become a part of our life.

My problem, like many in our busy world, is finding the time to read everything. Lately I hear that people are using eight as the limit of blogs and Web sites they read and connect with over the course of a day or at any one sitting. Qualified journalists must continue to gather the news and disseminate it without, hopefully, prejudice. Journalism is an honorable craft and something that mainstream news organizations, peopled by trained reporters and editors, usually do well. They supplied the news in the past. They do it now, and they will do it in the future. Ultimately, news gathered by skilled reporters, published in newspapers and on mainstream Web sites will be there for any interpretation the reader chooses. People will decide the value of the news they read based on their own preferences.

I do not know where network television news is going, or where news on television will be in the future. I will make no predictions. Suffice to say, year in and year out, it is never the same for TV news. Is it better? Not necessarily. I believe the network newscasts will stay essentially the same with only minor changes, including less hard news and more features, almost as it is today. That does not mean it is better or worse than in the past, just different. Change is usually good, but it may not make any network newscast more relevant, better, or easier to watch. In the end, these changes have little effect on the slowly dwindling audience.

We cannot live without news because it opens the world to us. News still matters, even if not in the same way, which I will discuss in Part 2, next month.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.