NETWORK NEWS FEELING VISE OF THE ALTERNATIVE
The future of CBS News is not the past.
To review: Thomas Wyman is out as head of CBS, Laurence A. Tisch is in. Acting chairman is William Paley, who founded the network, presided over its glory days and was boss when Edward R. Murrow was there. Van Gordon Sauter is out as news division president. That old lion Walter Cronkite is more visible. And “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer is heard saying that it feels like old times at good old CBS News.
Better times, maybe, but certainly not old times.
Changed leadership may stabilize a CBS that has been sinking in an era of costly corporate wars and shrinking network audiences and advertising revenue.
Yet not Paley, Cronkite or any other hallowed symbol can restore CBS News to its former prominence. Improve morale and performance, yes. Turn back the clock, no.
CBS News will never be the same, because network news will never be the same.
Network news may not be disappearing, but it’s certainly getting more beige, its influence diminished by competition, alternative satellite technology and syndicated news services that are allowing local stations to be their own Dan Rathers, Tom Brokaws or Peter Jenningses.
News divisions have multiple faces. Brokaw is NBC News, but so is Willard Scott. ABC News is Ted Koppel, “World News Tonight,” “20/20" and the new “Our World.” Rather is CBS News, and so are “60 Minutes,” “West 57th” and Charles Kuralt--and so was Phyllis George.
It’s those nightly evening newscasts that shape our perceptions of network news, though--the so-called electronic newspapers of record that compress the world into 22 minutes.
In most cases, what they provide is neither comprehensive nor compelling.
Paley’s return? How can he make a difference when his network’s nightly news hole can accommodate only tooth-pickings. Talent becomes almost irrelevant in network news. Even the world’s best journalists can’t fit Goliath’s foot into David’s shoe.
According to one stopwatch, for example, last Tuesday’s “CBS Evening News” presented fewer than 19 minutes of news after subtracting for commercials, teases and some of Rather’s intros. The count was 15 stories, ranging from three minutes on killers who advertise to seven items less than a minute each.
The total rose to 20 minutes on Thursday’s CBS newscast, which contained 12 stories, the longest a three-minute profile of Reggie Jackson and another three minutes-plus on the first of two parts on drug testing. On the other side, reports about nuclear pollutants, drug smuggling and an Israeli bombing of alleged terrorist camps ran 20 seconds each.
Timing the Brokaw and Jennings newscasts would yield about the same results.
For years, the networks have rightfully complained to their affiliates that the half-hour newscasts needed expansion and that stations should relinquish another half hour of local time to get the job done.
Yet why would KCBS-TV, KABC-TV and KNBC give up lucrative time periods now occupied by “2 on the Town,” “Eye on L.A.” and “Entertainment Tonight,” respectively? Why would a station give up big-paying “Wheel of Fortune” to expand a network newscast that is becoming increasingly redundant?
There are many alternatives.
Who needs nightly network newscasts when stations can tie into Conus, a satellite news-gathering service that bypasses networks? Founded in 1984 by Hubbard Broadcasting, Conus now has an agreement with the Associated Press to provide a Washington, D.C., news feed for more than 600 stations.
Why should stations wait for network coverage of an earthquake in California or a hurricane in Mississippi, moreover, when a Conus mobile van probably can get there first and immediately begin beaming a signal to Conus-linked stations?
And if not Conus, then Ted Turner’s CNN service or the Independent News Service, and so on. There are pictures for sale, for everyone, from everywhere.
A handful of stations even have their own satellite trucks (KNBC will have one soon) that they can use to beam back stories from even the remotest of locations.
Stations are also increasingly using their own anchors to narrate network news feeds, giving viewers even less of an appetite for network news, as if the competition from CNN and “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS weren’t reason enough to stay away.
Some stations also have been preempting the networks by assigning their own people to national political and election stories. And local anchors are increasingly being sent abroad on international stories and providing exposure that may translate into increased credibility and ratings.
In a trade journal recently, New York-based Visnews advertised its “passport services,” which is “everything local television stations need to cover news stories on-location anywhere on Earth.” It continued:
“Get your reporters and anchors ready to travel--anywhere in the world! We’ll take care of the rest--camera crews, editing, standards conversion, documentary footage. . . . Save the headaches, save the hassles.”
Networks are the ones with the headaches and hassles.
There is one school of thought that network news will continue to dominate because of viewer habit and because networks still have the best talent and do the best job. Just how much savvy can you expect, after all, when Detroit anchorman Joe Hairspray is assigned to cover a breaking story in the Philippines?
There’s another school of thought that network news will continue to fade. That school believes that local stations--now freed by a deregulation-minded Federal Communications Commission from worry about license renewal--will be satisfied with less, not more, and will merely pick at network news offerings like vultures at a carcass. That would reduce network news to even more of a headline service than it is now.
Everything on TV is cyclical. So maybe it’s time for another network go at something along the lines of NBC’s old 15-minute “Camel News Caravan” with John Cameron Swayze, who would say, “Happy we could be together.”
For 30 seconds.