NEW YORK – Tom Brokaw leaves this week, Dan Rather in March. But the broadcast network evening news as an institution isn’t going anywhere.
The ABC, CBS and NBC nightly newscasts don’t have nearly the influence, or the viewership, they did before viewers could get news instantly on their pagers, telephones or cable TV. It’s a different world.
Despite the onset of a personnel transition following the remarkable 20-plus year reigns of Brokaw, Rather and Peter Jennings, the broadcasts seem on firmer ground than they did five years ago, when there were many questions about their survival.
“I think the institution still provides the most serious and well-organized look at what’s happening in our world every day and in these times, especially, it’s a great service. It’s as simple as that,” said Brokaw, whose last NBC “Nightly News” newscast is tonight.Most evenings, nearly 30 million people watch one of the three programs. Ratings have been sinking steadily, but that’s the case for most shows in a fragmented television world; evening news ratings have dropped at a rate 4 percent slower than prime-time broadcast fare over the past decade, according to Nielsen Media Research.
For all the attention they get, the three cable news networks – Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC – don’t even get 4 million viewers combined in an average prime time.
All of the evening newscasts seemed to go through some sort of identity crisis in the pre-Sept. 11, 2001 world, wondering if a mostly no-nonsense look at the day’s top stories made sense anymore.
Those days are gone, said Andrew Tyndall, a news consultant whose firm, ADT Research, studies the content of each newscast.
“They’re very much like they were in the late 1980s, when they were still the flagship newscasts of the networks,” he said. “They’re serious newscasts dealing with domestic policy, politics and international news, with very little human interest, little water-cooler material. It’s a hard newscast.”
They all run a lot of health coverage, since most of their viewers are over 50, he said.
All had stories on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s ethics problems this month. That’s a story the network morning shows would barely touch, Tyndall said, evidence that the content of morning and evening newscasts are becoming more distinct.
To a large degree, the serious turn is a function of the times.
“For a while there, to say that something was a foreign news story was to be using a term that was offensive in some newsrooms,” said “Nightly News” executive producer Steve Capus. “I think what Sept. 11 said was that we shouldn’t be afraid to cover the world and America was hungry for a trusted service to look at what’s going on around the world.”
News executives say the evening programs have tried to be more explanatory, recognizing that many viewers have already had a chance to see headlines elsewhere.
Yet the presence of cable news is deceptive. Following industry leader Fox News, these networks have become more talk, less straight news over the last few years.
The services that were supposed to make the evening news obsolete are instead giving the broadcasters an opening.
Outside of the newsmagazines, the nightly news programs have also become one of the last refuges for packaged reports, where a correspondent gathers material throughout the day for a prepared story. Cable and local newscasts are instead dominated by reporters who stand in front of a camera on location and talk about what they know, a format that frequently sacrifices depth for a sense of immediacy.
The evening newscasts are not nearly the profit-generating machines of their networks’ morning shows. But their older audiences provide a targeted opportunity for advertisers.
None of these reasons for keeping the evening news would matter much if the stations that broadcast them wanted to stop.
These stations could decide it would be easier, and more profitable, to show a “Seinfeld” rerun or “Access Hollywood” instead. But there’s been no talk of that lately.
“We see the nightly news as being relevant, maybe more relevant now than it has in recent years with national news at the top of the headlines every day,” said Terry Mackin, executive vice president of Hearst-Argyle Television and head of NBC’s affiliate board. “We’ve never contemplated asking the network to do less national news.”