The Digital Journalist
Twenty-One Minutes
Part 2
February 2005

by Ron Steinman

Despite wishes, dreams, hopes and predictions, the end of network news as we know it is still far in the future. Those who believe in all the new forms of journalism and pseudo-journalism should put their prophecies on hold.

What some now call the Big Press, the Big Media (a rose by any other name is still, after all, a rose) had better turn their attention to the cause of better journalism. It does not come in form. It will come in content. Wishes will change nothing. Network news will be with us for years to come, so settle in for the duration. I know this thought makes some out there uncomfortable. They want their day in the sun. It will come, but it will take years. The networks will change their newscasts, only to a degree, before they even consider eliminating them.

In the future, as now, network news and cable news will be in a war of attrition. Recent scandals hurt all journalism. The networks keep losing credibility and with good reason. In a recent national poll about professions, television reporters and newspaper reporters, in that order, rank lowest on the scale of respect. That attitude does not help journalism. Despite that, in the news business, circulation still counts. It is worth repeating that despite the falloff in audience for the networks, and their big loss in income, the three networks' nightly news shows still attract more than 30 million viewers. The breakdown: NBC News at 11.4 million, ABC News at 10.6 million, and CBS with 8.3 million.

At the end of 2004, CNN had lost 22 percent of its primetime audience; MSNBC, 16 percent; CNBC, down 13 percent; CNN's Headline News down 11 percent. Fox only lost about 2 percent. According to Daily Variety, "Fox averaged 1.67 million viewers in prime-time compared with CNN's 855,000, MSNBC's 374,000, Headline News' 212,000 and CNBC's 161,000." Added together, that comes to 3,272,000 viewers, hardly denting the three free networks' audience. These numbers do not reflect the large increase that cable always benefits from during a breaking story, such as one with the emotional power of the tsunami that obliterated parts of South Asia. That increase disappears when the story runs its course.

Those who run the cable news networks want you to believe they are dominant. It is not the case. Combined, their ratings are very small compared to the three major free networks. The free network numbers easily dwarf the combined audience of all cable news operations. Yet, the perception is that no one watches the three network newscasts. The publicity engines of Fox and CNN are far superior to CBS, NBC, and ABC.

Why, you may wonder, all these numbers? Numbers count in broadcasting as they do for newspapers and magazines. They are inescapable. I am not a flack for the networks and their newscasts. I am not a hard-core advocate for the mainstream media, but I strongly believe in coming years there will be no massive gains for cable or the Internet. There will be no sudden seismic shift in the audience. When all of cable news combined overtakes even one network with the size of its audience, then we can ring out the old with the new. Until then, mostly the news war will be between good and bad journalism, and the perceptions of dyspeptic viewers and critics.

Cable news is everywhere and it does its best to hold us by the throat with its constant barrage of hype to prove its importance even if much of what it plays is low-end, prurient, and repetitive. Cable news shows repeat stories every 15 minutes, a necessity because there is not enough news to fill any day without repeating many of the headlines. In broadcasting, we call it a wheel, running like the hands of a clock, around and around, repeating everything the show producers think you should know, or have on their computer screens, before they add anything new or what they consider "interesting" to the newscast. It does get boring if you watch throughout the day.

It is worth noting how the networks operate. A constant battle goes on between news and entertainment over how much time news should have in the pursuit of informing a public it believes needs to know what is happening in the world, especially with its competition, cable news, on all the time. Entertainment controls each network. The networks survive on advertising. Commercials on news shows bring in about 90 percent less income than commercials for entertainment shows. When the news divisions interrupt the flow of regularly scheduled programs with breaking news, the networks lose money because they have fewer commercials and those commercials dropped from their regular slots fall into the "make-good" category where the advertiser gets a free ride in exchange for not being on the air as scheduled. Often, in management's defense, it uses good sense and drops commercials when it breaks into a program because the subject may be too serious or too daunting for mostly frivolous ads.

Despite the huge falloff in audience for the networks and a large corresponding loss in revenue, the amount of money the evening news shows earn is still very high. Network accounting systems are akin to the movie business. All sorts of items make their way into the network news budgets, thus making the money they earn seem minuscule compared to what the above-the-line income purports to be. Naturally, network income from news is not anywhere near what it used to be. It is still healthy, though. Whatever income there is from any part of the television business, it is never enough for network executives, their shareholders and their corporate owners.

My viewing habits are, as many, sporadic for the evening news. I wanted to see what the three looked like over three nights, but not to criticize the substance of the news they present. It would be unfair to analyze each show's stories because on any night, though the lead might be the same, much of what else follows in the remaining 20 minutes or so is often different. I will not dissect the news I watched, or comment on how each covered a competing story. I will not compare the substance of the evening newscasts. That is meaningless. No judgment of the news is ever the same. Though we may all pick the same or nearly the same lead stories, the way we parse them to fit a program will never be alike. This is, instead, about style, seemingly the commanding ethos driving TV news today.

I watched how the three networks' news programs presented what I call classical programs. I wanted to see how the anchors handled their jobs, how they read the introductions to stories, and the tone each anchor brought to his newscast.

In capsule, ABC was the easiest to watch, CBS, the dullest and NBC, the most tense.

Peter Jennings is calm, sure of himself, allowing you as a viewer to feel confident in where he is taking you. The tone of the newscast is sure, the graphics a touch too good, too bright, and they have too much movement. I prefer watching the reader at work and not much action behind him, around him or near him. Yet, ABC's graphic displays were far superior to those on NBC and CBS. As with all the newscasts, there are far too many features in the last half and not enough news about the world. I have the feeling that ABC does not think I or anyone else has a clue about the real world. Join us, they say, for a journey that will expose us to the truth. Not so, Peter and company. I for one want less back-of-the-book stories and more hard news. And this goes for the other two networks.

When I occasionally saw Brian Williams on cable, he made me very tense. Now on the network, watching him is like waiting for a guitar string to snap. His posture and demeanor and NBC News' penchant to have its anchors stand (creating extra tension physically because as a viewer I wonder how long they can stand before falling) does not help what NBC calls, "the broadcast." Brian Williams treats each story as if it is a train wreck about to happen, or has already happened and his job is to put everything on the right track. It does not work. The graphics look weak and do not add anything to the news segments. On ABC, they sometimes play too big a role, but on NBC, it is as if the producers are unsure what they want them to be.

Dan Rather is clearly an acquired taste, something I have never been able to develop. It is not that he is folksy, it is that I feel he is trying too hard to make you at ease as he comes into your living room or kitchen every night. He does not seem real. Worse, the graphics look inexpensive, actually half-formed, as if they are unavoidable, and that maybe no one will notice how bad they really are, if we give them a back seat. I have a feeling someone made the decision that if we produce graphics that are too graphic, it might take away from what CBS News used to stand for: integrity, toughness, good reporting. CBS looks and acts older than its two competitors.

I never met an anchor who enjoyed the idea that he was a traffic cop whose duty was to move the show along calmly, precisely and, yes, energetically without going over the top. That, however, is what they really are, and, if not, what they should be. The nightly news shows are, in truth, over almost as soon as they start. To assume that the anchor is anything more than a reader is naïve. The half-hour newscast is down to 21 minutes of what passes for news. After subtracting the opening graphics, the closing graphics, and the commercials, what remains are the few news headlines to help you get through your night knowing the world is perhaps still in one piece. Then we have all those hellos, goodbyes, often ponderous and repetitive throws to correspondents, catchy introductions to prepared pieces, cross talk with correspondents to give you insight on a story, and the occasional interview with a newsmaker.

There is an alternative. It is the News Hour with Jim Lehrer. It provides a relevant, pithy rundown of news headlines, and then follows with in-depth reports and levelheaded discussions. I do not want to look at cable because I do not want all talk all the time. Mr. Lehrer tells me what I want to know about the day's events in under 10 minutes. I will not compare a PBS hour with the network half-hour programs. They are enormously different and play by different rules because of, if nothing else, the huge disparity in money. However, if you want satisfaction and have no wish to turn to CNN, Fox, MSNBC or even CNN Headline News, with their frenetic graphics and quickstep presentations, then head to the News Hour on PBS. It is worth the few minutes of your time.

I learned my way in TV news working on the original 15-minute Huntley-Brinkley newscast, where every second counted and where we did not believe much analysis would solve the world's problems. We had about 11 minutes for news. The features I produced for David Brinkley in Washington were long if they ran more than 45 seconds. Having gained my first broadcasting experience on that show in Washington and then New York, it is not mere nostalgia when I say we packed in more news that was meaningful in those 11 minutes than they do today in 21 minutes.

All these shows have become increasingly mushy, as a friend says. Soft, we used to say - news without substance that tries to fool you into believing there is more there than there could possibly be. I would like to think that the journalists who run these shows cannot be serious about what they think are thought-provoking news stories.

At one time the studio director on a news show had the responsibility of moving the programs along quickly, quietly, error-free. They had hardly any say in the overall look of the show. That fell to the producers who designed the graphics, including the colors and fonts, and placed the anchor in what they considered a desirable and non-threatening position on the set. At NBC, I recall a debate we had between management and the producers and those in a daily-more powerful graphics department over which font to use for the lower-third identifiers. The debate did not end until a new style director emerged, one who took it on himself to alter what you saw on the home screen. Very slowly, as management lost its power, content took a different shape, dominated by style over substance. Today style seems to be all and content a minor player, especially in cable where without the dazzle on screen, it would be like watching a soufflé fall flat. Most news producers would disagree. I accept that. They have to keep their jobs, but more importantly, they do not know any better, having come into the business in the new era. These producers today have a difficult job in a highly competitive world where appearance is often more important than substance.

Let me add, I am anti-politeness on the evening news, or any news show for that matter. There is an enormous amount of wasted time when anchors say thank you to correspondents for doing their job and then repeat the name of the person reporting after the person has signed off with his name. Does the editor of a newspaper say thank you by name to a reporter after the piece appears in print? Imagine how much space that would use. Maybe at one time thank you was in order but today with pace so important to a news program, it slows everything down - unless, of course, it is in the correspondent's contract to hear a thank you each time they appear on the air.

How we as viewers get our news is changing very fast because of the Internet. The threat to news as we know it may easily be the Internet. Mainstream news organizations want to keep up with the growing competition and pull in as many advertising dollars as they can. Thus, like seemingly everyone else, Big Media is developing its own Web sites. Along with the slow network erosion of audience to cable, there is also the difficult-to-measure turning of people of all ages, but mostly those between 18 and 39, to the many news sites on the Internet. The major news broadcasters and their cousins in print now dominate those Web sites that provide news. Shunned no more, they fill a void about how we deliver news on the Internet's rapidly changing landscape.

Recent Nielsen ratings for those taking a peek during the day at various Web sites has CNN at almost 24 million, MSNBC at 21 million, Yahoo News at more than 20 million and AOL News at more than 16 million. The New York Times and Fox also rate well with those who favor their presentations. Add the many other local newspaper and magazine Web sites around the country, and it becomes apparent that people, when they can, turn to the Internet to catch up on news, weather and sports. The information is there 24/7 and is available with the click of the mouse. Just imagine the result when the one-third of the people in this country who do not own a PC acquire one and start using it. Until then, television sets still dominate America's news habit. Until the number of PCs comes close to that of TV sets, and people take the time to use them, changes in viewing habits will be incremental, though not earth-shattering, with each year coming closer to realigning the habits of many viewers.

The strength of Web news sites is that, similar to newspapers and magazines, you can read once, read again, go forward or backward, take your time thinking about a story, a graphic, a single photo, or many photos in a slide show, and even some video. Yes, video. Moving pictures similar to TV. To survive, each site must have a unique look, one that sets them apart from everyone else. Because of that, the latest wrinkle, and the one all broadcasters should fear, is the increased use of video on Web sites, especially those run by newspapers. With broadband now becoming ubiquitous, with small digital cameras everywhere, relatively easy to use and reasonably priced, it is easy to go to the scene of a story, capture part of the story on video and post it on the site. Quality on the computer screen is apparently less important than it is on the TV screen. Often a short video insert of perhaps 30 seconds is enough for a viewer. Keep in mind, we are now seeing moving images of news on a computer screen in a square not much bigger than two inches by two inches, which for me is not much to look at.

Many viewers today do not flinch, as I do, at all of the information on my television screen obliterating what I believe is most important to the story, the picture. I still believe images have great power to convey ideas, and, of course, emotion. The written story, a series of photos, a short video, unless the story demands a longer feature length, usually satisfies most viewers. Their hectic lives come first. News these days works best when it is quick, fast, in short bursts. Multi-tasking and too many demands on our time do not allow us much contemplation when we want to know if the world is still with us and perhaps where it will be tomorrow. As more computers come on-line and users grow, especially the young, video on news Web sites may be the greatest danger to network news as we know it.

And one final thought. What is with the Lester Moonves story, you may have wondered, as he searches for answers about the future of CBS news? What happened to the silly proposals he threw out for the press? In a news conference, he said he is considering changing the format of the evening CBS News show. Here is the grand poo-bah of CBS proposing that in the face of scandal he will change that half-hour of news forever. Instead of his core age group of those over 45, he will aim for a younger audience who rarely looks at TV news, anyway. Gone will be the Voice of God syndrome, meaning the era of Cronkite and Rather will finally end. Maybe there will be multiple anchors. Maybe he will add a comedian. Many maybes, but with only one that makes sense. None of us needs an omnipotent anchor leading us through the maze of the day's news. We do need a good traffic cop. The anchor who takes on that role instead of the know-it-all father figure can probably have a long life in TV news. We also do not need multiple anchors similar to the dismal failure on the CBS Early Show, where it is impossible to identify with any of those nondescript faces. CBS News is Mr. Moonves' toy. Let's see how long it takes before, like any active child, he breaks it. Do not touch that dial just yet.

I started by saying the networks are not going to close down their news operations overnight. Network news, like a bad rash, will not soon disappear despite those who predict its imminent demise. News on the network is not about the consumer; it is about the advertiser, and until those buying commercial time believe they can get more viewers for their bucks elsewhere, which is not likely, the half-hour news show on TV will continue for some time to come.

© 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.