What’s the Frequency? Seldom

Dan Rather‘s quitting as anchor of the CBS Evening News, and that’s on the front page of both papers we get (the San Francisco one and the New York one). We’re sort of a news-oriented family, but we don’t watch Dan (or Tom or Peter or Jim, or any of their cable counterparts) and haven’t for a long time. I watched the cable news outlets during the day when I was working at TechTV out of professional interest; after all, we were doing a daily news show. And yes, when there’s a compelling breaking-news reason, like the election or a disaster or we’re going to war again, we’ll turn on network news. Watching usually serves as a reminder of how shallow, wooden, obvious, and journalistically unadventurous TV news is. What it’s good for, mostly, is showing pictures of things, and given the quality of the information or commentary that come with the images, most of the time you’re just as well served with the sound turned down.

And the ratings numbers make it look like a lot of people feel the same way. When Rather took over the CBS anchor job from Walter Cronkite in 1981, the Chronicle says, the Evening News had a Nielsen rating of 13.6 — that’s 13.6 percent of all the TV households in the United States. Now the number is 5.1. The Chicago Tribune has a story today recounting the long slide of network news ratings; in 1980, the combined audience share for the evening network news shows was 72 — that’s 72 percent of all the TVs in use at a given moment; in 1990 the number was down to 57, and now it has fallen to 36.

Obviously, people have a lot more news choices now: many choices on cable TV as well as the most compelling and addicting news channel of them all, the Net. But you have to wonder if the decline and collapse of the network news model was or is really inevitable. Would better and deeper news values over the decades made a difference? One of the major irritations and disappointments of major cable and network news shows is that the presentation seems so formulaic and the stories so pat; that’s one reason “The Daily Show” seems so inspired — it both sends up the “real” news shows and lampoons them for the way they shy away from controversy.

One interesting thought for CBS from the 2004 “State of the News Media” report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism: The network should become the news voice for the major lifestyle and entertainment outlets its parent company, Viacom, owns. Quoting analyst Andrew Tyndall, the report says:

“If … CBS News was responsible for news for children (on Nickelodeon), for youth (on MTV), for African-Americans (on BET), for men (on Spike), on the radio (Infinity) and so on, it would once again address the mass market that Cronkite once did and put the Tiffany in Viacom, as it were. That potential audience for CBS News is already waiting in Viacom’s distribution system, but the news division just does not have the vision or the corporate ambition to revive its once-famous name.”

2 Replies to “What’s the Frequency? Seldom”

  1. Well, first of all I would like to say that your analysis of the situation is as usual very good. But as my favorite news anchor was included in your list of first name only news-casters I thought I should write something. I am referring to Peter Jennings. He became my favorite news-caster when I saw a program he did on Jerusalem and he seemed very open to all sides of the story, something I hadn’t seen much of in relation to that particular, and on-going, issue. I was young and perhaps there were others with just as open a view of the situation that I did not see but were there none-the-less. And Peter having an open mind does not by any means make his show good, although I enjoy it.
    Maybe one reason I enjoy ABC World News Tonight so much is it is the only US news program I can see over here, just for 15 minutes in the morning, commercials edited out (which shows you how much of the 30 minute time slot they really use). Compared to the way every single news show in Japan is exactly the same US news seems like a breath of fresh air. Which may be getting stagnant as I ramble on so one last point. You wrote that the Internet is the most compelling and addicting source of news. I could be mistaken and you probably have a lot more knowledge of interesting news sites out there but I feel like the use of the internet for news is another sign of the reduction of the common attention span of humanity. Now instead of sitting through a news show we want something specific right now. Not that we shouldn’t be allowed this comfort but it seems rather than being compelling it is just addicitng. There’s my overstuffed two cents worth. No accounting for inflation.

  2. I like Eamon’s comment but have to go with Dan on this one. We come from a time (long, long ago) when network anchors were cutting edge journalists…Dan Rather included. These guys could change government policy. Just look at their coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, poverty and Watergate, to name a few. Today, they seem more like entertainers putting on a show. They are, in my humble opinion, pretty hopeless. Look at the coverage leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The networks flatout bought the government line and acted as cheerleaders in the aftermath. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as Kevin Sites’s work. But even his best work is not on NBC, it’s coming through his weblog. The web is probably the best source of news and information today. You get access to all publications and writers across the entire poitical spectrum. Of course, you also get a “heap’n help’n” of lies and damn lies as well, so you have to be skeptical. But that is okay too because any news group, organization or publication–internet or otherwise–should be looked at with a large measure of skepticism.
    However, I do know Eamon’s relief, even comfort, in seeing a familiar face while overseas. I used to watch the PBS Newshour while I was in Australia and ABC 20/20 was on at five in the morning. It was good to catch on the doings in Yankeedom.

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