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.”