Are Evening Newscasts Headed for Doom?

CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)

CBS Evening News Anchor Katie Couric (AP Photo/Peter Kramer)

BY: David Bauder

NEW YORK – Doomsday scenarios for the future of broadcast evening newscasts have floated around for nearly two decades now. The latest, though, comes from someone in a real position to do something about it.

CBS Corp. Chairman Leslie Moonves recently predicted a fast-changing newscast format because viewers now keep on top of the news through cable channels, the Internet and mobile technology. Yet those who manage or closely follow newscasts suggest Moonves may not have noticed changes they’ve already made.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone predicted some shift in the evening news, I wouldn’t need to be working,” said Jonathan Banner, executive producer of ABC’s ‘World News.’

Moonves likely had his own frustrations — and business interests — in mind when he spoke at the University of Texas earlier this month. Katie Couric never achieved his goal of lifting the ‘CBS Evening News‘ out of third place in the ratings, and a decision on that show’s future is due soon with Couric’s contract expiring next year.

He told the college students that it’s too expensive to support the newscasts as they are now.

“People are getting the news elsewhere,” he said. “When there were only three networks, you did have that public service component, where we were informing America. Now, there is nothing that Katie Couric is saying that everybody doesn’t know already.”

He said the programs could become like ‘Nightline,’ focusing on a couple of different stories, or the Sunday morning political talk shows.

Viewership is flat or down at all three broadcasts this year compared to last — 1 percent at the ratings leader, NBC’s ‘Nightly News,’ 3 percent at ‘World News’ and 6 percent at the ‘CBS Evening News.’ During one last week in August, the newscasts collectively had their smallest audiences on record.

Shrinking audiences have been a fact of life at the news shows, and for broadcast television in general, as viewers have more entertainment choices. Cable news ratings are down from last year, too. Still, broadcast news divisions point out that more than 21 million people watch one of the three shows each night on average.

“The public is still expressing a need and a desire for a program like the one we’re producing every night,” said Bob Epstein, ‘Nightly News’ executive producer. People may hear headlines during the day, but are still looking for a broadcast that sorts out the news, he said.

In general, the newscasts have cut back on the number of stories mentioned in each newscast in favor of treating some with more depth. That’s particularly true of the night’s lead story, which is often explored through multiple angles with different reports.

NBC anchor Brian Williams has led the way in setting aside a portion of the broadcast as a showcase for quirkier stories done without filmed reports, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant with TMI Research who has tracked the content of evening newscasts since 1987. One day earlier this month, for example, Williams reported on the last airline to end the practice of giving free meals to regular passengers, and the Gap backing off a change to its logo.

There’s a greater effort at doing distinctive, enterprising work beyond reporting on the day’s news, Banner said. ABC’s Diane Sawyer is taking the broadcast to China next month for three days to examine how that country has thrived in a worldwide economic slump. Couric, similarly, took a reporting trip to Afghanistan this summer.

Banner took note of Moonves’ claim that viewers already know what Couric will be reporting. “The responsibility of a producer is to make sure that statement is categorically false,” he said.

The producers are also aware that the last time a dramatic shift was attempted in a network format was when Couric took over at CBS, and it fell flat with the audience.

“We have to tell people the news,” Banner said.

Changing to a discussion format such as the Sunday shows would be a wrong turn, Tyndall said.

“There’s already far too much of that on television,” he said. “That isn’t the way for the evening newscast to distinguish itself.”

But Tyndall said the evening newscasts have not done enough to reposition themselves for the wired world and, given that, he’s surprised they’ve held on to that large an audience. He said producers should think less in terms of a daily newscast and more in terms as a repository of video news reports. They could be used and spread much like many people experience ‘Saturday Night Live‘ through brief highlight clips on the Internet the next day.

While Moonves opened the door to an examination of network newscasts, there may be more immediate changes on his mind. He said Couric’s move to CBS, at a reported annual salary of nearly $15 million, “will be the last big deal of that kind ever done” because network news no longer generates the revenue to support it.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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