The Digital Journalist
The Battle for the Evening News
Or a String of Pearls
October 2006

by Ron Steinman

This column will ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. Who is to blame for the celebrity status accorded to former correspondents who become anchors? This column, then, will castigate critics, news managers and a thoughtless public. Each is responsible in some way for the mess we are in with evening newscasts. Each is complicit in the hype usually associated with a rock star before Ms. Couric ever had her first show. It is not a pretty story.

CBS got a lot of ink from the run-up to the new show. Perhaps the network revels in the high number of mentions, and hopes, obviously, these will morph into higher ratings for the new show. However, publicity does not make for a better news program.

Critics and TV reviewers are part of this web of creating and shoring up a personality. Most of these men and women only see the individual fronting the news. Rarely do they analyze a show for its material, its news content, the news the public needs to know to allow people the opportunity to make a choice. In the case of Katie Couric and CBS News, they have been looking at content only because CBS made a big deal of it by saying Katie wanted changes to attract a wider audience. I have trouble believing that Katie Couric, no matter how smart and able she may be, is responsible for the editorial changes on the CBS Evening News. If that is the case, then the inmates have truly taken over the asylum.

For a reported 15 million dollars a year, CBS better get its money's worth. Figure the evening news shows run about 21 minutes plus and we see the anchor for perhaps seven minutes a night, and at most eight minutes a night on average for hard news. That breaks down to a hefty per minute dollar number. Imagine the money Michael Jordan could have made based on similar calculations. You do the math.

In the early days of TV news, we cared more about the story than the individual who delivered it. We cared more about the nature of "the broadcast" as some disparaging insiders called all the evening news shows, than about the salaries doled out to the people in front of the camera.

Don't get me wrong. The cult of personality existed back when I started in the business. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and others delivered the news night after night, entering people's homes for the most part as welcome guests. I insist, though, without strong news divisions behind NBC and CBS and ABC, no matter who fronted each show, the audience would have found other ways to get its daily news fix if the news they received on these newscasts was weak and devoid of worthy content. I agree that with those early stars we saw the birth of the cult of personality. But at that time, the cult of celebrity was barely a glitch on the tube. Celebrity magazines still had no impact beyond the cheaply produced magazines devoted to movie stars. Gossip sheets were in their infancy. The world is different today, and with it, television critics are themselves victims of the star syndrome. They constantly neglect content and kowtow, in almost worshipful glee, to news stars, instead of analyzing how these shows present their content.

As many of you may know, at one time the Miss America beauty pageant was a staple of prime-time TV and got a good audience. At the end of the program, Bert Parks, who emceed more than his share of those shows, sang "There She Is," as the new Miss America made her way down the runway and, ultimately, into her queenly throne. Watching the promos of Katie Couric gussied up in her little black suit, a single stand of pearls around her neck and her hair combed neatly and like an adult brought those scenes back to me. Katie Couric is not Miss America. But the press treated her that way before her first show and now that the show is four weeks old, they are still treating her that way. That is unfair to CBS News and to news in general. Unfortunately, cosmetics have become everything.

Though I have not talked to her for perhaps 15 years, Katie Couric and I go back a long time. When she was the second of two reporters at the Pentagon and I was a producer for Sunday Today, management asked me to produce her first magazine pieces so she might get used to NBC's style. I did two stories with her. One was about a radical Maryknoll priest, the other about kidnapping and home invasions in Washington's Vietnamese community. She was easy to work with and the pieces turned out well.

Those critics who complain the loudest about the quality of broadcast news should look hard at what they are reviewing before they write anything about Ms. Couric's effect on the evening news. Fortunately for those who read their columns, they did not err when they reviewed the quality of the newscast. No matter how good or strong the anchor, unless each of us, critic or not, looks at what is inside the news half hour, we are nothing less than derelict in our duty.

Does anyone at home, the public, who watches the news, really know what it is looking at? I mean, are they able to see beyond the newscaster and the correspondents reporting a story? Are they able to see the story reported for what it is and not necessarily because so and so is reporting it?

What about the newscast? It is evolving, but not fast enough. As with all newscasts, whether network or local, broadcast or cable, the graphics --many of which are exciting and creative -- take up far more time than necessary. Along with promos and what is coming in the next segment or pod, the producers waste valuable minutes on what I call junk. It is as if the they believe news is a video game. Because the young enjoy video games, I assume they say, we will make the newscast a video game. It does not work that way. News executives fail to realize that many people, including those who watch the CBS Evening News, may want some relief from overly creative video. Imagine how much more news we could have if the news divisions cared about news instead of working so hard in their attempt to capture the desired demographic of the 18 to 49s.

The show has news, of a sort. Its first segment has the appropriate top stories with essential produced pieces that show as well as tell. Then it is usually downhill in a flash. Every few days the CBS Evening News seems to get better. It tries to put on a fresh face and says, "look at me; I am giving you the news you want." It did okay recently with the E-coli in spinach story, showcasing two pieces on a subject—the food we eat—that affects all Americans.

Then feature follows feature. It is time to sleep. Disguised behind the façade of hard news, every segment has a name or title. Everything does not require a name or title for me to hang around to watch. Just the story, please. The show also has a newfangled attempt at democracy that a 22-minute newscast can hardly afford. To that end, several elements must go.

The "Free Speech" segment arrives with fanfare and quickly deadens the newscast. These extended letters to the editor are transparent attempts to widen the viewing audience, aping the recent infatuation with citizen journalism. The segment doesn't work.

"Snap Shots," when they appear, belongs at the end of the show, if at all. Not every bit of pop culture belongs on an evening newscast. That wastes a lot of valuable time.

A live interview in the middle of the newscast also doesn't work. There is a tendency of the interviewee to be profound and for Ms. Couric, sometimes to be fawning, and often too chummy, which is a weakness in any interviewer.

"Assignment America" is cute beyond description. It is a series of well-produced kickers better suited for morning TV rather than the evening show. It is annoying when the story ends to see Ms. Couric sitting with the reporter as they offer the public a chance to vote for, and thus choose, the next piece CBS will produce for broadcast a week later.

None of the evening news shows is immune from any of these problems. Each has its own quirks. Each depends on its anchor to deliver the news and hold onto an aging and often fickle audience. Where most people will get their news in the future is open to question. Information, that is news, though, is the key. Unless the newscasts tell us what is happening in our world, the evening broadcasts will surely disappear faster than the blink of an eye down the rabbit hole of no return.

The battle for audience is not about the quality of any newscast, though the professionals who put on these programs do care. News and its dissemination are important to them. The battle in the boardroom is for audience. There will be continuing talk about numbers, ratings, share, etc., from, as some recognize, only a business point of view. That is important, but the audience, as usual, will suffer as the networks fight for supremacy, money and, ultimately, survival.

© 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.