The Future of Evening News

There's an ironic twist to the story of recent Oscar contender "Good Night, and Good Luck." Based on real events, this Hollywood take on CBS News and its iconic journalists during the era of Joseph McCarthy was far more effective at drawing an audience and making money than the real CBS evening newscasts of today. The film, made for $7 million, has garnered more than $30

million in U.S. ticket sales so far. AtAmazon.com, it ranks among the top 10 most popular DVDs. Meanwhile, even as the "CBS Evening News" managed to attract more viewers last year, it remains mired in last place behind NBC and ABC. But the evening-news business has been steadily losing overall viewership. Still Leslie Moonves, CBS's CEO, is a happy-news kind of guy. "I'm not writing off the time period," he told NEWSWEEK. That's for sure. What he's writing are big checks, like the one last week for $75 million over five years for Katie Couric, the latest Great Anchor Hope in the television industry's eternal bid to reclaim the glory days of the evening news.

In "Good Night,'' the CBS founder Bill Paley, as played by Frank Langella, says of the TV news business: "People want entertainment, not a civics lesson." Though the film is set in the 1950s, the point is certainly true a half-century later. With the rise of two-income households and longer workdays, there are fewer traditional dinner hours in American households to provide a huge audience for the news. The combined evening-news audience for CBS, ABC and NBC (Fox Broadcasting doesn't offer network news) has plunged by half, to fewer than 30 million, from its 1969 peak. "The question is, can God save the evening news?" says chairman Jon Mandel of MediaCom, a top ad-service agency. "Just look at what time it's on." Lord knows network execs have tried, by toying with such innovations as coanchors, roving anchors and serial set changes. The result: more bad ratings and a geriatric audience coveted by big pharmaceutical companies but few others.

Until now, that is. News broadcasters lately are seeing the future. And guess what? It's not in the evening--and maybe not on the TV screen. Instead, broadcast journalism is going multiplatform. From iPods and cell phones to laptops, NBC, ABC and CBS are digitizing their high-priced anchors and correspondents to deliver news flashes by the byteful anywhere and any time to a mobile society. News-on-the-go is, of course, transforming all traditional media, from newspapers and magazines to radio. It's also a growing outlet even for the 24-hour cable news channels CNN, Fox and MSNBC, whose rise over the past quarter century helped fuel the decline of broadcast news.

The broadcast networks are hardly Web neophytes. They've long had their own established Net presence, and they've partnered with outside Web sites to supply news. In the 1990s, for instance, ABC forged a groundbreaking pact to be the exclusive supplier of television news to AOL. In 1999, CBS made headlines by supplanting ABC on the Internet giant. In the biggest partnership yet, NBC and Microsoft formed MSNBC.com a decade ago (NEWSWEEK is a partner). "When the venture began 10 years ago, who would have imagined that they would have grown so big?" says Steve Capus, NBC News president.

The widespread adoption of fast Net connections in homes and offices has set off an explosion of streaming and downloadable video news. CBS established CBS Digital Media, an umbrella broadband site that includes CBSnews.com. Moonves appointed an online news heavyweight to oversee it, Larry Kramer, founder of the Dow Jones MarketWatch financial news site, formerly CBS MarketWatch. NBC has put its entire evening newscast online.

The changing of the anchor guard has helped speed the networks' embrace of the Web. The first, coincidentally, was at NBC. Brian Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw in December 2004. Since then, Williams has probably ranged across more media boundaries than any of his peers. There's the broadcast flagship "NBC Nightly News," which also runs on MSNBC.com. Williams podcasts and blogs. Last December, he debuted on cell phones with a special report. "He's redefined what the role is," says NBC's Capus. "He's not just about going on TV at 6:30. He now reaches a set of viewers who aren't necessarily watching 'Nightly News'.''

Not to be outdone, ABC's new co-anchors, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, who is recuperating from injuries sustained in a bombing while reporting from Iraq, sought to make an immediate online splash. On Jan. 3, about three hours before her debut on the evening broadcast, Vargas appeared live on streaming video at ABC.com with a preview. "The reason why we are starting a Webcast is because we want to reach consumers who use different technology," Vargas recently told NEWSWEEK. At CBS, Couric will battle her rivals in cyberspace, too. She questioned network execs closely about how she'd be deployed on the Web. And she was told she'd be used a lot. During the summer, well before her September debut on the "Evening News," she will likely blog and show up on Webcasts on CBSnews.com.

After agonizing for years over the aging TV news audience, broadcasters are seeking the fountain of youth online. The median age of evening-news viewers is 60, and skewing older every year. The telecasts are "on at a time of day that young people aren't in the house," says David Poltrack, chief researcher for CBS. It's been that way for decades, hobbling the networks' subtle efforts to woo younger viewers. Still, none of the Big Three has been eager to radically revamp. "There's a fear that if they change too much, they will drive away the core audience," says Mandel, the ad exec.

The main audience on the Web, however, is younger. As the Internet has exploded over the past decade, it's been embraced most fiercely by those who've grown up with it. And network-news brands are roping in a fair share of them, especially with the advent of online video. Overall, news and current events make up the most popular video content on the Web. According to a study by the Online Publishers Association, 66 per-cent of Internet video watchers click for news and current events, surpassing movie trailers, music videos and sportshighlights. A high number of teens--21 percent--contributed to the overall popularity of news online, says the association's research partner, Frank N. Magid Associates. Some 1.8 million to 4.3 million Americans ages 12 to 17 watch online news or current-events videos once a week, says Martin Eichholz, Magid's chief researcher. Although they favored music videos and movie trailers, he said, "I would think that's essentially good news for news organizations." Network executives see it firsthand. "If you put the same TV story on broadband, the audience tends to be significantly younger than the people watching on the network," says David Westin, president of ABC News. "Right now, at least, it tends to be the case that our younger audience is increasingly going to the Net."

The same is true at msnbc.com. At NBC, only 24 percent of the "Nightly News" audience is under 34, compared with 54 percent of the Web site's. This bodes well for the future, says Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, the network's parent. Noting that the Web is a primary news source mostly for younger people, he says NBC is using the digital platforms to plant the seeds for its future: "Our strategy is to get the audience comfortable with Brian and NBC News. Then, on election night or during a national crisis, their first instinct will be to turn to someone [on television] they are familiar with."

Even in the age of iPod updates, Zucker, along with his counterparts at CBS and ABC, appear to agree that the evening news, for better or worse, remains the nucleus of the networks' news divisions. Despite the rapid surge in revenue from online advertising, it is still just a fraction of the estimated $500 million in combined ad revenue on the evening news shows. And despite its relative old age, the audience is valuable to some advertisers.

The dinnertime news remains a symbol of prestige for television networks. The anchor is as much a part of American culture as apple pie. The list is long, stretching from Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley to Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. The late Edward R. Murrow of CBS remains one of TV's most revered TV journalists. It was his story that unfolded in "Good Night, and Good Luck," in the early days of broadcast news. Who knows? Someday Couric may be added to the list--if she succeeds in helping television news recapture its former glory. If not, certainly some television exec will have another inspired idea for a successor: what about George Clooney?

The Future of Evening News | News
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