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Network TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism with Andrew Tyndall

Network television news was once the most trusted source of information in America. It also had a monopoly over pictures and television reporting from across the country and around the world.

Neither of these things is true anymore.

Network news in 2004 is an industry trying to find its place in the changed world of 21st-century journalism. It is also an industry on the brink of generational change, with the retirement of its most visible symbols, the current nightly network anchors, beginning with the stepping down of NBC’s Tom Brokaw at NBC later this year.

What place does covering the major events of the day or acting like an important public institution play in a network’s identity in the age of a hundred-plus channels? How important is news at all?

A detailed look at the content of network news reveals that the evening newscasts are still network television’s front page, and by traditional standards still home to its most serious journalism. Nearly 30 million people still watch the nightly news, and the programs remain profitable.

But the trend line is ominous. Evening news ratings have dropped 59 per cent since their peak three decades ago. And the audience is aging – nearly 60 years old on average, while the average age of Americans is 35. The economics of evening newscasts is headed in a troubling direction.

The picture for network morning news is quite different. Its audience is stable and even grew in 2003. Morning news shows, which have half the audience of nightly news programs, also enjoy twice the revenue as their evening counterparts, according to available data. Yet the content in the morning is softer. People who get their news from morning programs know a very different world – one that is less global and more oriented around entertainment, celebrity and true crime – than those who get their news from newspapers or evening news.

What the networks believe they can afford to offer the public also has changed. Available numbers suggest that the news divisions have fewer correspondents and off-air journalists to produce the news than they once did, and fewer bureaus or listening posts here and abroad. Foreign bureaus have been cut by more than half. At the same time, the newsgathering technology has become more sophisticated, the editing capabilities and satellite reach more vast and instantaneous.

The net effect, many network journalists say, is the news at all three organizations tends to be focused on the major stories that have to be covered, leavened with features or sidebars routinely chosen for their appeal to targeted demographic groups. Privately, network veterans say the unexpected is less common. So is the original. There is more homogenization. Large portions of the domestic news agenda, such as the environment, science, prisons and the poor, content analyses suggest, are often absent. Other topics of special interest to targeted demographic groups, such as healthcare, retirement and financial markets, are emphasized.

Overall, more people now say they turn to cable television for major breaking news events than say they turn to network or local broadcast news. The reason appears to be convenience and availability. We live in an on-demand world. Yet on those occasions when network television news goes head to head with cable, such as with morning news shows, network still tends to attract more audience.

What does all this suggest about the future of the network news divisions?

The answer probably depends on how the parent companies that own the networks perceive news as adding value to their franchise. Do they believe that news has an intangible value that transcends the immediate bottom line – that a news department’s reputation for quality and commitment to the public interest enhances a network’s brand, thereby strengthening its entertainment programming, its local affiliates, its other media endeavors? Or do they see news mostly as commodity, which justifies itself in quarterly and measurable terms in return on investment. Both are justifiable views. But they lead to different strategic visions and different levels of investment.

The journalists at the networks still address a mass audience that surpasses any other medium. They still possess an institutional memory for news delivery that rivals journalists elsewhere. However, the decline of the television networks as a medium means that these advantages of scale and history are dwindling year after year, although they have not yet been dissipated.

Most likely the future will be determined by the degree to which the news divisions’ owners have the imagination and the will to create new business models that employ both traditional and emerging technologies, target both old and new audiences, expand to more channels of transmission and generate new revenue streams. If they do, they can add value to their conglomerate parents, providing diversified news for their entire media franchise in broadcast, cable, Internet and beyond, just as they did for the stand-alone networks in the last century. If they do not, they will probably wander down the path of contraction they have followed over the past two decades.