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2006-08-24 / View From the Middle

View From The Middle

Network Broadcast Nightly News: It's Here To Stay
By Charles Rogers

The network news race is heating up to the boiling point. By all counts, it will hit 112 degees Fahrenheit within a couple of weeks when Katie Couric presents her bright, shiny face on CBS and takes over the anchor desk as permanent replacement for Dan Rather and his interim editor/ host Bob Schieffer.

When Rather resigned as a result of a news blunder under his watch, it sort of woke up the news executives from all three broadcast networks. Oh, they knew things were not going too well ratings-wise ever since the onset of cable and its devastating effect on viewership and advertising revenue. But, money makers that they are, they knew essentially how to handle it, despite CNN, Fox and MSNBC, etc., infringing on their territory.

For the most part, however, the execs are - and have always been - news-persons; journalists who have hit the big time because they are and were professionals who know what they're doing. When you think of the future of broadcast journalism, don't forget to think of where it came from.

Why, for instance, do you think CBS chose Katie Couric to replace the relative "old timers" Rather and Schieffer? Just having a great personality and being in people's homes every morning on the Today Show is merely some of the gloss that comes with marketing the product. But if that pro-duct (Couric) didn't have the professionalism and background to do the job; to be able to connect with the audience but still be a news-person - a journalist - she wouldn't have even been proposed.

The same deal went for Barbara Walters when she became the first woman to head a production for a news division. ABC couldn't have been happier with that outcome.

We know things are radically changing in the nightly news area, the crux of a news division of any network, effecting that 6 or 6:30 p.m. non-cable broadcast that catches us up on national and international events of the day. (The local news is a different animal altogether! But that's to be addressed another time). Some people - critics and pundits alike - say the technical changes are so overwhelming that the nightly news shows can't catch up with them and they will be left too far behind within just a few years, eventually to become just dust.

While some say the demise will be soon, some say it will be a long time and some say never.

In the long run, it's the professionalism that will make it immortal. Do you think ABC's new anchor Charles Gibson hasn't been a seasoned journalist for most of his life? Brian Williams, on NBC Nightly News, is right out of the same framework as Tom Brokaw and, dare I say, David Brinkley. Couric's got a few things going for her, for starters, including curiosity and the will to dig for the story. No doubt the ratings for CBS Nightly News will certainly go up, at least at first. And Williams and Gibson are wishing her well too. There's nothing like some good competition to keep you on your toes.

Probably the main thing that will contribute to the long, long life of evening network broadast TV news is its audience. It's almost refreshing to see that they're finally not losing their perspective and trying too hard to get hold of that 18-34-year age group. They'll never do it and be able to keep the demographic audience they have now, which is the over 35 viewer - way over 35.

While the younger audience is made up of spenders who rarely take the time to watch the evening news, the advertisers aim at them with their entertainment division. That's a separate entity in the network, as opposed to the news division, which is building up this audience by branching into the Internet. One of the networks (probably joined by the others even as we speak) is presenting a preview of its nightly news broadcasts on iPods every afternoon - to maybe catch a young viewer's eye so he or she will want to tune in at night.

Meanwhile, the older audience is hanging on. And they're spending their saved-up money on what they want to buy (unfortunately, the products all seem to be prescription medicine). When you think of it, though, since aging Baby Boomers are upon us, they're the very ones who, although at one time they shunned the evening news, are becoming old-timers who will keep the demographics steady.

Now, keeping the network evening news just as it is, relatively, doesn't mean it has to go completely unchanged. Thanks to all that new technology, the world is smaller and smaller every day. Check that: the universe is smaller. The execs will have to walk a fine line so as not to lose what they have.

But they're professionals. They'll handle it.

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