CBS, what is the frequency?

CBS, what is the frequency?

CBS, what is the frequency?

Media criticism.
March 7 2005 6:33 PM

CBS, What Is the Frequency?

What the network should do in the post-Rather era.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The woolly mammoth had about 1,000 years notice toward the end of the last Ice Age that their feed-bag, the grassy steppes, would vanish and that they'd best find a new home. Nature tendered a similarly generous warning to the broadcast networks that their evening news niche was vanishing. In 1980, 75 percent of televisions in use during the dinner hour were airing an evening news broadcast from one of three networks. By 2003, the number was down to 40 percent.

Of the three retreating network mammoths, CBS has stumbled the worst. Dan Rather's CBS Evening News show has finished a distant third during most ratings periods since 1993. And though all three evening news shows continue to lose viewers, the rate of defection from Rather's continues to be the highest. The New York Times reports that Rather's program is down 10.8 percent over a similar period a year ago, compared to 4.4 percent for ABC's program and 6.7 for NBC's.

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Granted, Rather's goofy style makes your eyes bulge and your ears buzz. He's so unpopular that there are probably more Arizona Cardinals fans than Rather fans. But is the failure of the CBS Evening News all his fault? I'd argue that 1) he's mostly a victim of a changing media environment and 2) CBS helped dig the ditch Dan vacates this week, one so deep that not even Walter Cronkite could have climbed out of it.

Some folks trace Rather's problems to Laurence Tisch's takeover of CBS in the mid-'80s, after which he cut the news division's budget, hence its quality. Verne Gay notes in Newsdaythat Rather's ratings began their big decline in 1988. Even if Tisch's cost-cutting harmed CBS News, by 1993 Rather's show was still neck and neck with ABC for the No. 2 position in the ratings and within shouting distance of No. 1, NBC. Then in May 1994, Fox Broadcasting Co. chief Rupert Murdoch fractured CBS distribution with an investment deal that persuaded eight television stations to flip their network affiliation from CBS to Fox. In big markets such as Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee, CBS's replacement affiliates were low-rated UHF stations. In Detroit and Milwaukee, CBS had no local news program to feed viewers into CBS Evening News. The program's ratings collapsed and except for a brief uptick in 1996 have tumbled ever since. At the same time, CBS surrendered NFL football to Fox, weakening all CBS affiliates.

CBS also failed to invest in a cable news channel, a strategy that has helped NBC amortize the cost of its news division. That said, even if CBS had done everything right and the fates had smiled upon it, the best you could say for the CBS Evening News was that it was dominating an atrophying and doomed broadcast niche.

Broadcasters know this, and they know that the mass audience they once enjoyed will never come back. They also know that their viewers didn't merely transfer allegiance to cable. Cable news viewership peaks between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., mostly due to The O'Reilly Factor's extraordinary popularity. On a good day, about 3.5 million people watch all cable news during that period, which is still small compared to the combined audience of 29 million each weeknight for the broadcast network news. In recent years, even local news operations have lost market share at about the same rate as the network beasts. "The issue," according to a Journalism.org study, "is not just that people have turned off the television set. They have turned off the news in particular."

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So, instead of pretending that it's 1985 and that CBS News can return to its former ratings glory by hiring the right anchor face, such as CNN's Anderson Cooper, or by reducing the broadcast to a succinct 15 minutes, or by targeting the female audience, as expert newshounds suggested last week in the New York Observer, or any other cosmetic strategy, CBS would be wise to design a newscast for the modern audience.

CBS should worry less about who anchors its evening news ship than what the ship looks like. Any of the current CBS doofuses will do as an anchor. It's not like Brian Williams and Peter Jennings light my charisma candle. CBS could steal a march on NBC and ABC and the cable networks by designing a program that reflects changing viewer habits. It needs to break the code of why viewers have turned off the news.

First, CBS should target serious news consumers, the sort of devotees who follow breaking news all day through news radio, cable, and the Web. Dedicate the program to breakingest of breaking news and ditch the news-you-can-use and heart-warming features unless they're stupendous. Produce a program that's worldly and doesn't waste time. The BBC World News, which airs on many PBS affiliates, is a good model, even if it is excessively chatty for my tastes.

Next, reduce the number of commercials. Right now, about eight of the 30 minutes of an evening news slot are ads, which makes the program too short and too frequently interrupted to be compelling. The Journalism.org study asserts that one reason the network's morning "news" programs have gained viewers steadily since 1998 is that viewers have realized that they often program big blocks—up to 20 minutes—free of commercial interruption. Advertise the CBS Evening News as the program that gives hardcore news consumers two minutes more news per half hour. Cutting ads will reduce revenue, of course, but it will build audience, which is the longterm problem the program faces.

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Swing a deal with CNN to rebroadcast a refreshed version of the CBS Evening News in the 10 p.m. slot. One reason behind the evening news fade is that it's still scheduled for an era when moms stayed at home and cooked for dad, who didn't have a long commute. How many 30-year-olds do you know who would watch the evening news at 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. if you paid them? The network's morning shows have benefited by giving busy viewers a two-hour window through which to watch. Nobody expects them to watch the whole thing. A 10 p.m. cable slot for the CBS Evening News would similarly appeal to busy people. Sharing news resources with CNN, which has been on the table before, would be an excellent idea to add quality and scope to CBS's coverage.

Next, CBS News should partner with a premier daily newspaper—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or the Wall Street Journal—to give viewers a taste of tomorrow's news tonight. The networks already use the morning New York Times as a cheat sheet for the evening program. Why not use it as a preview of tomorrow's news? The New York Times already does a two-minute show based on this idea for the Discovery Times cable channel at 10 p.m., so W. 43rd Street might not be keen on partnering. What's in it for the newspaper to partner? The Web sites for both the Post and the Los Angeles Times already draw more readers nationally than they do locally. CBS News could steer additional eyes to those Web pages.

Next, hire a brainy and thoughtful commentator. Eric Sevareid (good), Bill Moyers (bad), and Bill Bradley (uneven) once delivered interesting commentaries on CBS Evening News. In our increasingly opinionated world, CBS would seem futuristic by going retro and including a video columnist.

TiVo and other technologies have destroyed the concept of "appointment viewing." CBS should respond by putting the goddamn broadcast on the Web. Computers and television aren't converging—they've converged—and I want to watch the news 1) when I want to watch it and 2) on whatever monitor I'm looking at. CBS could start by streaming the program onto the Web at the same time it broadcasts the show. Then it should video-podcast it. Other time-shifting opportunities await. Monetize the evening program by putting it on the various cable video-on-demand services. Do the same with the CBS News archives. Wired Editor Chris Anderson's "long tail" thesis implies that there's money in all of those old documentaries, news magazines, and news casts. Thomas W. Hazlett of the Manhattan Institute urges CBS to allow viewers to personalize the Web version of the news and suggests that it be the first network to bring television news video to capable cell phones.

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George Washington University professor of journalism Mark Feldstein thinks a network should abandon the traditional evening news time slot and program an hourlong news show starting at 8 p.m. Producing a money-making news program in prime time will become economically feasible if network entertainment ratings continue to decline. Ceding the 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. slot back to the affiliates would make them very happy (because it will make them money).

Arizona State University professor of journalism Craig Allen, author of News Is People: The Rise of Local TV News and the Fall of News From New York, suggests that one of the networks will eventually euthanize the program. Eliminating an early evening program from a network line-up was one of Rupert Murdoch's bright ideas when he started Fox. Instead of battling the other networks for profits in an overpopulated news slot, Murdoch programmed entertainment at the local level and put his energies into producing an hourlong local program at 10 p.m. for the various Fox affiliates that he owned.

The woolly mammoth was far too specialized—and too dumb—a beast to adapt to its changing environment. The producers at CBS News may be specialized, but they're not stupid. But if they continue to play by the current set of evening news rules, they're destined to to lose. Unless they want future news archaeologists to find them frozen alive in pack ice, they need to stop thinking about who is going to be their next anchor and start changing the news environment. Without subscribing to his news values, they need to ask themselves, What would Rupert Murdoch do?

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Your incendiary network news ideas solicited here. The winner will become the next president of CBS News if I have anything to say about it. Send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)