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Network TV evening news was never meant to be and soon will cease to be 9/13/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in Uncategorized.
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Network TV news was created for all the wrong reasons and will vanish for all the right ones. It was invented by CBS TV founder William Paley to deliver programming that highlighted legislative issues, as a way to ingratiate his network to the federal government. He thought it would reduce the risk that the government would revoke his highly valuable license to broadcast his highly profitable entertainment programming. It would not be for another 20-30 years that CBS News would turn its first profit, which news head Dick Salant famously announced to his staff as both good news and bad news – bad news because Management would actually start caring about what his department did.

But nobody at the networks really cared all that much about evening news even after that. They took no action for years as Dan Rather’s ratings plummeted vs. his competitors, who themselves never did the kinds of things real competitors might do — things like striving to make their broadcasts more appealing, differentiating them from the others, or thinking for themselves rather than mindlessly following the lead of the NY Times. CBS leaders like Mel Karmazin (Hat tip: Adrian Monck) and Don Hewitt regularly questioned whether news should be outsourced. That’s why it was so shocking when CBS’ Les Moonves thought enough about evening news to lure Katie Couric at great cost, a move he no doubt regrets today.

Evening news has now become more of a liability than an asset for the networks. Maintaining news bureaus and reporters is costly. Viewers with a median age over 60 years old are relatively unattractive to advertisers. The programming ranges from dull to condescending to scolding to uncomfortably alarming, and in any event is clearly inferior to news offered by CNN and Fox. It prides itself on fearlessness, but demonstrates suck-up-edness to those in power. It’s not even possible to make the case anymore that it improves the image of the networks, as the percentage who rate network news as highly believable has dropped by one-third in the last 20 years to a pitiful 21%. As network TV evening news nears its final sign-off, we might borrow from Edward R. Murrow to offer our own: “Farewell, network news. Good night and good riddance.”

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1. Adrian Monck - 9/16/07

Steve – Although I love the Dick Salant story, CBS started a nightly newscast in 1948, if that’s your starting point, that would make the Salant story from 1993 – the year he died. He stepped down as news division chief in 1979.

2. Steve Boriss - 9/16/07

Adrian, Thanks for reading my blog and checking my facts. Regarding the Dick Salant quote, there are at least two seemingly “unimpeachable” sources regarding the year he was alleged to have said this, but they are contradictory. One is NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin who dates it to the “mid-80’s” in the article here, but who also in a lecture given at Canada’s Ryerson School of Journalism on March 13, 2002 (no longer available online) gave a specific year of 1986. The other source is former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg, who in a passage of his book “Bias” available here claims it was “in the 1970’s.” You seem quite right about Salant’s tenure, so it seems possible Goldberg’s timing is accurate, but impossible Dvorkin’s is.

Regarding the year CBS began broadcasting this news, I had been counting from 1941 when CBS’ flagship station in NYC began presenting two daily 15-minute news broadcasts on weekdays. It is true that this was the archetype of network news and it was done for reasons of government licensing, but I’ll concede your point that the actual CBS network was not formed until 1947 and their broadcasts began in 1948.

Accordingly, I have revised my post to be consistent with these clarifications, estimating that CBS News’ first profit came 20-30 years after it began. While I suppose it’s possible that Salant’s comments are an urban legend, I’ll note that Goldberg does not present them as such. I am grateful that you pointed these out so that I could make the post more accurate, and welcome your continued fact-checking!

3. Adrian Monck - 9/16/07

It reminds me of the David Halberstam story:

In the second quarter of 1974, a record period, CBS earned $34 million net profit. One CBS executive congratulated Robert Wood, president of the television network, on this success. Wood, however, seemed to wince at the idea of it.

“What’s wrong?” his friend asked.

“Do you realize that what we just accomplished now becomes the norm?—that we must go against it in the future, and if we slip below it it means we’ve failed,” said Bob Wood.

4. The Future of News(papers) - 9/21/07

[…] Related: Network TV evening news was never meant to be and soon will cease to be. […]


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