In recent weeks, the capital of the "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" appears to have shifted from Washington to Los Angeles.
All three network evening newscasts have been covering the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots and the "Murphy Brown" flap, but the CBS newscast has been particularly weighted to the West Coast since the verdict in the trial of four policemen accused of beating Rodney G. King. Last week it carried several stories about fallout from the riots, several others about the "Murphy Brown"-sparked debate on family values, two about Johnny Carson's departure from "The Tonight Show" and another about how the movie "JFK" continues to generate debate regarding President Kennedy's assassination.
At the same time, the newscast has aired several heavily promoted "lifestyle" segments of the "news you can use" variety, such as one by correspondent Ray Brady about prenuptial agreements and other aspects of marriage and money. Others have dealt with such topics as the high cost of prescription drugs and the dangers of skin cancer (which included shots of pretty women in bathing suits at the beach).
CBS' altered approach to its signature newscast is no accident.
"I think there's been an absolute Washington bias on the part of the network newscasts," explained Erik Sorenson, a former KCBS-TV Channel 2 news director who took over as executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" 15 months ago. "Los Angeles is the second biggest city in the U.S., and Hollywood is very influential in our culture. Routinely reporting on everything that Congress does--just because it did it--is irrelevant, and I think the mood of the public in this presidential campaign bears me out on this. Pocketbook and health-care issues aren't trivial pieces just because some guys in Congress haven't been talking about them. We're still covering Washington, D.C., but what we're trying to do is to broaden the scope of news beyond what happens on Capitol Hill and Wall Street."
Although some within the network criticize the recent changes as a "softening" of the traditional CBS newscast, Sorenson's approach appears to be working with viewers. In the last five weeks, ratings for the "CBS Evening News" have jumped 16% over the same period a year ago--a significant increase in news viewing.
The CBS newscast has widened the gap between itself and the third-place "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw" and has narrowed the space between second-place CBS and "ABC World News Tonight," which has been the top-ranked network evening newscast for the last three years. For the week of May 18-24, ABC had an 8.8 rating, while CBS had an 8.3 and NBC had a 7.5. Each ratings point represents 921,000 homes.
The increase in CBS' ratings has caused concern at "NBC Nightly News," which features a format of hard-news coverage, lifestyle stories and longer pieces called the "Daily Difference."
Steve Friedman, executive producer of the "NBC Nightly News," said in an interview that NBC will drop the "Daily Difference" package in June, which he said was confusing to viewers, and will be emphasizing hard news in the future.
"CBS has gone to a more popular broadcast with stories on money and health and 'news you can use' rather than its traditional emphasis as the 'broadcast of record,' " Friedman said. "They got a tremendous boost from the (Winter) Olympics (in February), and that's when they made their move. I'm not going to knock them for their strategy--it's similar to what I did when I came here. But I'm not here to be in third place, and they've given us an opportunity. Our research shows that people in these times want hard news, and that's the direction we're going to go in. We think the upcoming Summer Olympics (in Barcelona in July) will give us a boost in the ratings and an opportunity to showcase our newscast this summer."
There has been speculation at NBC that anchor Tom Brokaw is unhappy with the newscast under Friedman, who is also the executive in charge of NBC's new magazine show "Dateline NBC." But Brokaw said in an interview, "We both know that changes need to be made, and any conversations or dialogue we're having about the program are in concert. It's a matter of fine-tuning, not radical changes. We've still got to cover the news."
At ABC, which began the longer-form "American Agenda" feature that subsequently was adapted by both CBS and NBC, executive producer Paul Friedman and anchor Peter Jennings declined to comment on the changes at CBS. Friedman said that ABC, which has been associated in many viewers' minds with foreign-news coverage under former foreign correspondent Jennings, plans no changes in the newscast.
CBS research chief David Poltrack said that the "Evening News" ratings have been climbing since the Winter Olympics, and news viewing in general was up at the time of the Los Angeles riots. For the five weeks ending May 22, the CBS newscast averaged an 8.9 rating, compared to 7.7 for the same period last year. NBC's rating for the same period remained unchanged, at 7.9, while ABC's increased 3% over the same period, from 9.3 to 9.6.
"What's significant about these numbers is that CBS has cut in half the distance between itself and ABC, while NBC showed no net gain, despite the increase in viewing during the Los Angeles riots," Poltrack said. "The Olympics brought us sampling from baby-boomer viewers, who apparently liked the new look of the show and found the health and economics segments relevant to their lives. We have made gains in younger viewers for the newscast, which traditionally has skewed older than ABC or NBC."
He also said that CBS appeared to be "the main beneficiary of incremental gains in viewers during the Los Angeles riots. The last time that happened was when ABC solidified its position with its coverage of the San Francisco earthquake (in 1989)."
"I think we broke more news on the Los Angeles riots than our competitors, including the news that some of the gangs were reaching a truce," CBS anchor Dan Rather said in an interview.
"There has been a mandate here to make the broadcast more contemporary and more relevant and to no longer give special weight to stories from New York and Washington," said Rather, who said that he supported the changes and has been working with Sorenson on them. "We are doing more lifestyle features, the way that newspapers are doing more lifestyle stories on their front pages. We're still committed to foreign news, although all of us are doing less of it today than we did 15 years ago."
Rather cited several recent CBS stories--including a report on the government's poor treatment of Gulf War veterans who had lost limbs in the conflict and another about the delay in a Justice Department report on police brutality--as examples of scoops from Washington. "We're still a hard-news broadcast, and we will remain that way," he said.
Sorenson, however, acknowledged that traditional political coverage and foreign-news stories are less prominent on his newscast than when he took over the then-third-ranked newscast. "I think younger viewers are more interested in the environment, health care and pocketbook issues that are relevant to their lives," Sorenson said.
Closing the Gap
Recent Nielsen ratings for the three network news programs show that the No. 2 "CBS Evening News" is closing in on No. 1 ABC News.
Source: A.C. Nielsen Co.
* 1 rating point represents 921,000 homes.