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Network news shows struggle for survival
Scripps Howard News Service


June 20, 2005

No less an authority than Sam Donaldson, the television newsman notorious for bellowing hard questions at presidents, has concluded that it's time to blow taps over that most venerable of institutions, the network evening news.

Beset by mounting competition, journalistic missteps, changing demographics and the departure of some long-term marquee personalities, the network evening news program is a shell of its former self - no longer attracting the devotion that made it, in the 1960s and '70s, America's dominant information source.

"I think it's dead, sorry," Donaldson said during a panel discussion at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas last April. "The monster anchors are through."

While 30 million viewers still tune in to the nightly newscasts offered by the erstwhile Big Three - NBC, ABC and CBS - Donaldson and others cite dropping viewership numbers and the public's desire to get its news from other, more contemporary, outlets as proof that the 30-minute broadcasts are headed for the twilight.

"God forbid, if someone shot the president, which network would you turn to?" Donaldson asked. "It will be cable, the Internet, something other than 'General Hospital' being interrupted."

Indeed, there exists plentiful evidence that your father's network evening news - the arena for heavyweights like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley - is headed down the same road as the Oldsmobile. According to polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 60 percent of those questioned in 1993 said they regularly watched the nightly news on one of the three major broadcast networks. By 2004, that number had plunged to 34 percent.

Things don't seem to be getting any better.

In May, Nielsen Media Research reported that those viewing the "NBC Nightly News" had dropped 6 percent from the same six-month period a year earlier. "World News Tonight" on ABC dropped 3 percent while the "CBS Evening News" was off by 8 percent.

As a means of comparison, when Dan Rather inherited the coveted CBS anchor chair from Cronkite in 1981, "CBS Evening News" boasted a 13.6 Nielsen rating. By 2004, that rating had fallen to around 5.

It doesn't require Edward R. Murrow to determine what has led to the precipitous decline. Ted Turner founded CNN in 1980, but cable-news viewership still was so small in 1993 that Pew didn't even bother to measure it. By 2004, more people reported getting their news from cable television networks (38 percent) than the nightly network news (34 percent).

Cable isn't the only interloper. Pew maintains that 29 percent of Americans report that they regularly go to the Internet for news, a source unavailable to news junkies in 1970, when 75 percent of televisions in use during the early evening hours tuned into the network news.

The networks are hindered by several factors. While cable and online news is accessible 24 hours a day, the network evening news is limited to a half hour at what used to be the traditional dinnertime for the nuclear family, around 6:30 p.m. In these modern times, fewer people are in a position to tune in.

Political conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias on the network news. Many have responded by switching their allegiance to the Fox News Channel on cable. Conservatives proved particularly critical of Rather, and cite his botched report on President Bush's military service record, which appeared on "60 Minutes II," as evidence of his leftist leanings.

Brent Bozell - president of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group - said Rather's departure from the anchor chair this year left CBS a news organization that is "a mere shadow of its former self."

"The days when the 'CBS Evening News' was the gold standard for journalism are long gone," Bozell said. "CBS's credibility is sorely lacking and its ratings are slipping further and further south."

Rather isn't the only central figure to leave the stage.

Tom Brokaw, who handled anchor duties at NBC and transformed it into the top-rated evening news broadcast, stepped down in December. He was succeeded by Brian Williams. The lone remaining star representing the Big Three, ABC's Peter Jennings, has been off the air for two months to battle lung cancer.

Despite the obvious problems, loyalists maintain that reports of the demise of the network evening news shows are premature, and they offer proof to support the claim. For one thing, 30 million people still tune in to one of the three network newscasts every night, producing numbers that cable networks can only dream about. Compare that, for instance, to Bill O'Reilly, whose popular show on Fox News, "The O'Reilly Factor," pulled in a nightly average of 1.7 million viewers in May.

Those numbers translate into one thing - money. The network evening news retains its status as a cash cow, while boosting the bottom line of affiliates who generally provide profitable local news broadcasts as a lead-in. As long as the newscasts finish in the black, it's reasonable to conclude they will live on.

"Even with the declining numbers network news has, they still have by far the biggest immediate audience of any journalism offering every day," said Ferrell Wellman, an assistant professor of communications at Eastern Kentucky University. "The cable channels have just a fraction of what the lowest-rated network news offering has. CBS, on its worst night, has four-to-five times as many people who watch O'Reilly. It's still very large. It's just not as large as it used to be."

Shortly before illness forced him off the air, Jennings told members of the Radio-Television New Directors Association that the network evening news remains important.

"'World News Tonight' reaches five times the audience of all the cable (news channels) combined on a daily basis, so if we put the three of us together, there is some reason to believe the evening news is not quite as irrelevant as some people wish it to be," he said.

But Wellman, who spent 23 years in the television news business, warned that if network news continues on its current path, "it will be on its last legs."

"First they need to regain the public's trust and retool the newscast so it's no longer trying to be everything to everybody every night," Wellman said. "There still is a demand for what happened today but people need it in an in-depth format and the networks are really the only ones that can supply that."

Some changes appear to be in the offing. Bob Schieffer, billed as Rather's temporary replacement, has introduced a folksy anchor style, engaging correspondents in conversation about the affairs of the day. Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, recently told representatives of the network's affiliates that the show will begin experimenting this summer to try to develop a formula that will attract viewers.


Reach Bill Straub at straubb(at)

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