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Network Audience


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In 2005 the decline of network news viewership continued.

  • On the evening newscasts, the audience declines accelerated.
  • The lone exception was CBS Evening News, whose audience and ratings rose for the first time in years.
  • The general audience declines extended to the highly profitable morning news programs as well in 2005, something worth watching to see if that becomes a trend.
  • The audience for prime-time magazines, however, at least those that had survived, stabilized in 2005, a sign perhaps that the genre has completed its thinning-out process.

The audience declines in the mornings and evenings, moreover, took place during a year when major national and world crises occurred at a rapid and steady pace. There was Hurricane Katrina and its failed response, followed by Hurricane Rita; the death of Pope John Paul II and the appointment of Pope Benedict XVI; and the continuing war in Iraq.

The question heading into 2006 was whether network news would begin to make a serious move toward Web newscasts and other innovations that will free the medium from the limitations of television time slots, and if it did, whether that would bring audiences back to network news and attract sought-after younger viewers.

Nightly Newscasts

The evening network news programs continued their steady but bumpy decline.

Between November 2004 and November 2005, ratings for the nightly news fell 6% and share fell 3%. That is an acceleration of the pace of decline in recent years. It translates into overall viewership on the three commercial nightly newscasts of 27 million viewers, or a decline of some 1.8 million viewers from November 2004. From the start of CNN in 1980, nightly news viewership for the Big Three networks has fallen by some 25 million, or 48%.

As measured in ratings, the percentage of nightly news viewing in all TV households, the three network evening newscasts had a combined 18.9 in November 2005, down from 20.2 a year earlier.

As measured in share, the percentage of just those television sets that are on at the time, the three newscasts earned a 37 share in November 2005, a drop from the 38 earned in November 2004.

Evening News Viewership, All Networks
November 1980 to November 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

In the previous editions of this report, we have illustrated the decline in viewership for the nightly network newscasts by using two landmarks: 1969, the historic peak of nightly news viewership, and 1980, the launch of the cable news network CNN. In 1969, the three commercial nightly network newscasts had a combined 50 rating and an 85 share. In 1980, they had a 37 rating and a 75 share. Based on November data for 2005, ratings have fallen 62% since 1969 and 48% since 1980. Share has fallen 56% since 1969 and 51% since 1980.1

Evening News Ratings
November 1980 to November 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

In its first year, 2004, this report discussed in detail the various factors affecting nightly news viewership. In brief, those factors include longer work days, expanded commutes, growing competition from new technology, the end of the cold war, cutbacks in network news content, and generational lack of interest in the news.

What is it, then, that does bring viewers to the Big Three network newscasts? In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (conducted in association with the Project for Excellence in Journalism) people with a favorable view of network television news were asked in follow-up interviews to explain what they felt was best about it. Respondents agreed “that these programs do a good job of summarizing news, and provide a considerable range and breadth of coverage in an understandable fashion.”2 Taking that a step further, the convenience of a 30-minute news wrap-up in the evening or first thing in the morning suited those viewers.

But the same survey found that more people, roughly a quarter of respondents, said they got their news on national and international issues from cable outlets like CNN (24%) or Fox News’s cable channel (22%). The Big Three broadcast networks were cited to a lesser degree: ABC (16%), NBC (16%) and CBS (12%).3 Cable viewers said what they liked was the up-to-the-minute news that, in addition, could be tuned in anytime.

The challenge for network evening news producers ever since 1980 with the start of CNN has been how to match whatever experience, brand and story-telling strengths they have with the constant availability and rapid response of cable. After 25 years, the network overall nightly news audience still accounts for the largest number of people watching news at any one time. The notion that these programs are dying is clearly exaggerated. But the continuous decline in audience makes the size of the audience by itself less reassuring.

Heading into 2006, however, the Big Three network news organizations may never have been in a better position to re-conceptualize the evening broadcasts than they were in 2005. Each had anchor chairs to fill, with the stepping aside of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and the death of Jennings at age 67. Each had held his anchor chair since the 1980s, and the programs were inevitably identified, despite whatever changes were made, with figures who were older, male and white and delivered the news in a traditional, authoritative anchoring style. Yet the continuing presence of the old anchors probably inhibited innovation. Changes were minor, not revolutionary (Brokaw stood rather than sat). Now, with new faces at NBC and ABC and new ones coming at CBS, there was at least the opportunity for a greater pace of change and higher level of innovation. Network news was standing at the edge of a new-media revolution where information is traded online, over cell phones, by bloggers and even vloggers (the v is for video). Probably the most interesting question moving into 2006 was whether new faces in the anchor chairs signaled a new kind of network news, in particular one where the TV set is not the only serious focus. That certainly was part of what the networks were saying publicly.

At the same time, the sheer size of the network evening news audience always seemed to make the networks leery of risk. Jim Murphy, executive producer of the CBS Evening News for six years until being replaced at the end of 2005, put it this way: “The winners will be the ones who stick to smart plans and the right people. The losers will be the ones who think they are being bold or daring but sacrifice their traditional audiences.”4

Evening News Share
1993-2005, November to November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

Nightly News Audience Demographics

A major factor in all such calculations is the age of the audience of the network evening news. The evening newscasts, according to information from the December 2005 edition of MAGNA Global’s quarterly “daypart briefings” report, skews older than any other component of network programming. An expanding range of media options heightens this concern. Age groups that once naturally began watching the nightly newscast as they spent evenings at home with their families may now be as likely to turn to online or other alternative resources for news.

According to the December season-to-date numbers, the median age of nightly network news viewers remained basically unchanged at roughly 60.5 But the figures were not the same across the board. The median age of two of the Big Three’s broadcasts, ABC and NBC, was slightly younger in 2005. The CBS Evening News audience, fronted in 2005 by 66-year-old Bob Schieffer, was older compared to data from 2004.

The changes naturally raise the question whether placing younger people in the anchor chairs (the NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is 46, ABC’s Bob Woodruff is 44 and Elizabeth Vargas is 43) will attract younger viewers. Or do the limitations of time slot, the pull against innovation for fear of losing the existing audience base, and the traditional anchor-dominated style of an 18-minute evening newscast put inevitable limits on how much younger viewers will gravitate to those programs?

Median Age of Nightly News Viewers
2002, 2004, 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

The Race Among the Networks

When it comes to horserace, “NBC Nightly News” remained first in audience among the evening newscasts in 2005, following the arrival of Brian Williams as anchor in November 2004. The program continued to lose viewers in the past year, but still led in ratings, share and number of viewers. Roughly a year after the departure of Tom Brokaw, it fell from 11.2 million to 10.3 million viewers, fewer than in November 2003.

The declines should be put in perspective. The evening news under Williams had to contend with significant declines in NBC’s entertainment programming, which means fewer people to watch promotions for NBC news and fewer sets tuned to NBC when they were turned off and then turned back on. Williams retained more of his program’s audience, relatively, than the rest of NBC programming. The same problems, and same relative success, are also true of the “Today Show.”

ABC’s entertainment line-up was faring better but in a year when “World News Tonight” relied on substitute anchors, it suffered the biggest drop, falling to 8.9 million viewers by November 2005. That was a 16% decline in November viewership since 2000 and a 10% decline from November 2004. The unexpected death of Jennings, and the on-air search process for a replacement seemed to hurt ABC. That would particularly have disappointed Jennings, who had hoped that Brokaw’s departure followed by Rather’s would provide his network with an opportunity to regain the No.1 position.

Meanwhile, “CBS Evening News” with the interim anchor Bob Schieffer crept up by some 100,000 viewers, moving from 7.7 million to 7.8 million. That success under Schieffer bears note. NBC and ABC brought in younger anchors that also function as in-the-field reporters but CBS, unsure about its long term, picked Schieffer as an interim choice. He epitomized tradition, a familiar face from the older generation of network news, someone who in the last quarter-century had anchored morning, mid-day and weekend newscasts and functioned as Chief Washington correspondent. He has also been the anchor for “Face the Nation” since May of 1991. According to the biography posted on the CBS News Web site, Schieffer is also “…one of few broadcast or print journalists to have covered all four major beats in the nation’s capital — the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Capitol Hill.”6

And it was Schieffer, not his younger rivals, who enjoyed the audience gain in 2005. What might explain that? One argument might be that being in third place, CBS was the most likely to grow after an anchor change. Another factor might be that some viewers who would no longer watch Rather preferred Schieffer and were likely to give him a try as a known commodity. A third factor could be that uncertainty at ABC with Jennings ’s illness put viewers in play, and some of them might have been older viewers. A fourth factor might be change in the newscast under Schieffer, who seemed to become increasingly comfortable over time, and to interact naturally and skillfully with his correspondents, asking them probing questions with an apparently genuine curiosity. Schiefffer also was the beneficiary of the success of CBS’s prime-time lineup. It is possible, too, that Schieffer’s long experience simply paid off, giving him a depth some viewers appreciated. If so, the fact that the other networks have looked to people in their 40s for their next anchors may give CBS pause as it looks to replace Schieffer, the anchor who today is enjoying the best audience trend line.

Evening News Viewership, by Network
1980 – 2005, November – November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license


When viewed alongside the declining overall viewership of the three commercial broadcast television networks, the health and stability of “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS is impressive. Data provided by the NewsHour indicate that viewership of the program continues to remain close to 3 million each night, with some 8 million unique viewers watching at least one night a week.7 According to information provided to the Project by the NewsHour, that nightly number has remained at the 3 million level for the past several years.8 The program is carried by some 300 PBS member stations and, according to data from A.C. Nielsen, is capable of reaching 98% of U.S. television households.9

As with its commercial counterparts, however, there have been leadership changes at the NewsHour. Executive producer Lester M. Crystal, whose significant career includes having been the executive producer of the “NBC Nightly News” with John Chancellor from 1973 to 1976 and president of NBC News from 1977 to 1979, ended a run of more than 20 years with the program. Crystal continues his association with the production as the president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions.

As the three commercial networks see decline, and the cable news channels other than Fox do, too, that naturally raises the question whether PBS should be trying to expand its news offerings to capture the kind of dramatic audience growth of National Public Radio, whose listeners have increased nearly 50% over the last five years.

Morning News

Among the morning programs offered by the three network news divisions, viewership declines occurred across the board. NBC’s “Today Show” remained the industry leader, followed by ABC’s “Good Morning America” and the CBS “Early Show.”

On Thursday, July 14, 2005 , “Today” achieved an unprecedented 500 weeks at the top of the morning-show ratings. In December, it celebrated a full 10 top-rated years.

“Good Morning America ” edged closer to “Today” in 2005, but seemed unlikely to overtake the peacock’s morning show in 2006, particularly since NBC would be airing the Olympics. But faced with two years of declining audiences and rumors that the “Today” host Katie Couric was being courted by CBS to fill its evening anchor chair, it was not likely that NBC was taking the closing gap lightly.

From November 2004 to November 2005, overall morning news viewership dropped from 14.6 million viewers to 14.1 million. The viewership trend line for morning news has always been a bit more erratic than its evening news counterpart. While November 2005 viewership was lower than in 2003 or 2004, the decline still left total viewership higher than in either 2002 or 2001.

Morning News Viewership, by Network
November 1993 to November 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken in month of November.

In November 2005, “Today” averaged 6 million, down 5% from 6.3 million in 2004. Perhaps more worrisome for NBC, it was the second straight year of decline.

At ABC, meanwhile, “Good Morning America” averaged 5.3 million viewers, down 2% from 5.4 million in 2004. The “Early Show” averaged 2.7 million, down 7% from 2.9 million in November 2004.

What might account for the decline in morning viewers? Is it anything more than a temporary bump that will pick up, as it did in 2003?

Trying to sort that out is probably premature. Despite some major news events in 2005, with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the death of a Pope, the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case and more, there may have been some letdown in viewership because the year earlier was an election year. There was a similar decline in audience from 2000 to 2001. But it is also possible that the growing reliance of people on the Internet, the expansion of local morning programs before 7 a.m. and other competition were beginning to cut into the networks’ morning shows. The next year should provide at least some indication.

To turn those a.m. programs into two-hour-a-day economic Energizer Bunnies for their corporate parents (three hours in the case of “Today”) the networks go further with sponsored segments, cross-promotions, and product tie-ins than anything else in network news. “Today” played host to Donald Trump’s fired apprentices (contestants from Martha Stewart’s version appeared on her own morning program). Failed “Survivor” contestants took a seat on the couches of CBS’s “Early Show,” and “Good Morning America” doled out deleted scenes from “Desperate Housewives” for viewers who hadn’t gotten enough of ABC’s hit Sunday night series.

At least occasionally, though it does not appear to be common, those packages violated even more basic standards. In April 2005, the Wall Street Journal reported that the “Today Show” tech editor Corey Greenberg had been receiving payments from companies like Apple, Seiko Epson and Hewlett-Packard, whose products he was advocating in his role as tech editor. The Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz noted in an article the following day that when Greenberg appeared in a July 2004 segment of the “Today Show” he referred to Apple’s iPod as “a great portable musical player…the coolest-looking one” and suggested a compatible device to “share your music with other people.” “This is the way to go,” he declared.”10 In what Kurtz noted was a well-placed though unintentionally accurate comment, the host Matt Lauer told Greenberg, “Let’s cut the Apple commercial right now, okay?”11

Morning News Ratings
1993-2005, November to November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.

While there was some movement in the median age figures for individual morning news shows, the overall picture remained the same from December 2004 to December 2005, much as it did for the evening newscasts. The median age of the Big Three morning viewers combined was 53. While the “Today” audience age moved from 51 to 52 the program still enjoyed the youngest audience of the Big Three. The median age of the “Good Morning America” audience moved downward from 54 to 53. The “Early Show” audience held at roughly 53.

Morning News Share
1993-2005, November to November
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen Media Research, used under license
* Ratings taken for month of November.
Median Age of Morning News Viewers
2003, 2004, and 2005
Design Your Own Chart
Source: MagnaGlobal USA

The Sunday Shows

Any discussion of the state of network broadcast news would be incomplete without mention of the Sunday morning programs. The vast majority of the public knows those shows less from actually viewing them and more from the references to them in the Monday morning papers or clips on other TV news programs. The Sunday shows are largely designed and programmed for a stable, affluent, influential niche audience that is demographically appealing for advertisers. A survey of Sunday Nielsen weekly average numbers on Media Life Magazine’s Web site shows a picture almost identical to a year earlier —particularly striking because 2004 was an election year when most politically focused programs experience swells, with dips the next year. It appears that contemporary Sunday morning news is immune to that pattern.

Network by network, the picture looks the same as well. NBC’s “Meet the Press” leads, with ABC’s “This Week” holding a lead over “Fox News Sunday” but still trailing CBS’s “Face the Nation.” In November 2005, “Meet the Press” won the sweeps period with an average of 4.3 million viewers. That was 34% more than “Face the Nation” (3.2 million) and more than 60% over “This Week” (2.6 million). “Fox News Sunday” was a distant fourth with just 1.4 million viewers.12 Sunday morning is the only part of the day all week when Fox’s news operation competes directly with the networks on its broadcast stations. At other times its competition is confined to its news cable channel. That may change in 2006. Fox is reportedly preparing a half-hour broadcast news program to compete each evening as well.

There is also the perennial odd man out of the Sunday programs. CBS’s long-running “Sunday Morning” program is a blend of arts and culture reporting that stands in contrast to the hard-line political conversations of the other network other fare on those mornings. It also contrasts with the celebrity, show-business focus of the weekday morning programs’ entertainment coverage. And it more than holds its own. (PBS’s NewsHour does devote a fair amount of time to the subject, our content studies suggest.)13

Prime-Time Magazines

It was not that long ago that the prime-time news magazine was a programming and profit mainstay of each of the Big Three networks’ news divisions. These slickly produced hours, often specializing in long-form pieces on consumerism, true crime, human interest and celebrity, peppered the schedule. As PBS’s NewsHour noted, in 1999 prime-time news magazines were broadcasting “six nights out of seven and have exploded in just nine years from four hours of prime time programming per week to the currently scheduled 13.”14 Part of their appeal was that they cost much less to produce than an hour of drama or sitcoms, and added value to a news division within the network budget to boot. (On the other hand, prime-time magazine segments, generally, do not offer the same potential for re-runs that entertainment programming does.)

But with the rise of reality programming, prime-time magazines lost their edge as a source of cheaper programming that could earn a profit with a smaller audience. A reality hit could be even cheaper to produce and had the potential for a huge audience. What’s more, news magazines tend to attract an older demographic — people not falling into the prized 18-to-34 age range.

In 2005 the decline of the news magazine format continued with the death of “60 Minutes II.” Moving into 2006, only NBC’s “Dateline” continued regularly to air more than once a week.

The decline of the prime-time magazines, however, has other consequences for the news divisions, beyond shrinking the share of profit they contribute to their networks. One adverse consequence, network officials told us, was seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the days when the magazines were seemingly ubiquitous during prime time, they afforded the networks an easy way to compete with the cable news channels, allowing for expanded hard-news coverage without having to pre-empt entertainment programming. In September 2005, the networks could cover Katrina in the morning, in the evening, and on ABC late at night, with “Nightline.” They failed to take the lead in Katrina coverage during prime time.

The effect of having fewer news magazines, however, has not been uniformly negative on the surviving programs.

Nielsen data for November 2005 showed a largely stable picture for the remaining news magazines. Despite a rocky year in 2004, the “60 Minutes” flagship edition on Sunday nights led the field with 14.9 million viewers. NBC’s signature “Dateline” program was second with 19.7 million viewers (over 2 nights) followed by ABC’s “20/20” (8.8 million), CBS’s “48 Hours Mystery” (7.4 million), “Primetime Live” (6.7 million) and “Nightline’s” (3.9 million).

Despite “Dateline’s” success, the network has other commitments. For now, “Dateline Friday” is moving to “Dateline Saturday,” and next season the thinking is that “Dateline Sunday” will be eliminated because of the network’s new NFL commitment. One possibility is that “Dateline” might move to two hours on Saturday or come back with more episodes in the spring.

Meanwhile, the ratings numbers alone may not be a safe predictor of the future. The key questions for a magazine show, network officials say, are 1) how does a magazine do in the time slot relative to what had been there or relative to the lead-ins? and 2) how committed is each network to a magazine?

In 2006, CBS appears the most committed. Its “60 Minutes” is an institution. “Dateline” may be more vulnerable. Saturday is always a risky time slot because the networks have begun using the night for rerunning prime time dramas such as “Law and Order” and “CSI,” and those reruns negate the economic advantage of a magazine. For the moment, however, insiders say, “48 Hours Mystery” (on Saturday) appears secure.

At ABC, as the prime-time schedule improves, the magazines may be vulnerable. On Thursday, for instance, “Primetime Live” was considered secure because the network thought it had limited prospects at 10 p.m. , up against ER on NBC. So an inexpensive news magazine was a good alternative. Yet that may be beginning to change. ER is aging, and the program that leads into “Primetime Live” last year saw better ratings. The network may begin to feel it can now draw more viewers with a drama at 10 p.m. rather than with a news magazine. Until now, the prospects for that—up against ER on NBC and CSI on CBS, were considered dim. If that changes, “Primetime,” say insiders, could get bumped.

At NBC, Saturday night is a difficult night for magazines. Some network officials believe that “Dateline,” which for years had been an economic engine for the network, could be in real danger.

By the end of the 2004-2005 season “60 Minutes” was the only news magazine to make the top 25 programs. That was despite the cancellation of the program’s “60 Minutes Wednesday” (also called 60 Minutes II”) and the potential backlash from that program’s airing of an ill-conceived report concerning President George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service.15


“Nightline,” over the years, was something of an outlier among evening magazines. First, it existed outside prime time. It followed local news, and while it competed against comedy programming, it maintained a seriousness that made it difficult to categorize.

In 2005, the “Nightline” program that had been on the air for a quarter-century ended and was replaced by a new one with the same name. The impact of the change remains to be seen.

In late March 2005, Ted Koppel announced that he would be leaving the program and the ABC network when his contract expired in December 2005. The resignation came amid debate at the network about the future design of the show. (The battle became an almost iconic symbol for the critical importance of network news, at least in public-relations terms, when it became known that ABC was trying to replace the program with a talk show vehicle hosted by the CBS personality David Letterman.)

According to a Washington Post article by Howard Kurtz, while one proposal had “Nightline” becoming a “younger and hipper hour-long show…without anchor Ted Koppel…an alternative approach [was] being developed by Koppel’s staff, a more traditional ‘Nightline’ [that] would expand to an hour while remaining largely a taped and edited program…”16 Disney was reportedly entertaining talk of a “sports or entertainment show that would end the quarter-century run of ‘Nightline’…”17

It would be October 2005 before ABC would (at least temporarily) secure the program’s future and announce a replacement, or rather a team of replacements, for Koppel. ABC News would field a three-anchor team: Martin Bashir (a reporter perhaps best known for his tabloid interview with Michael Jackson), the “Primetime” co-anchor and senior legal correspondent Cynthia McFadden, and “World News Tonight Sunday’s” anchor, and the senior White House correspondent, Terry Moran. The program would broadcast from Washington, and from ABC’s Times Square studios in New York, where Bashir and McFadden would be based. In addition to multiple anchors and locations, the program would break from its former approach of focusing on a single topic and instead deal with multiple topics.

Koppel’s final show took place on November 22, 2005.

Much of the talk surrounding the premiere of the “new Nightline” focused on the fact that it abandoned two of its hallmarks, the single-topic focus and its simple, unadorned packaging. When the show finally premiered (at 12:45 a.m. EST November 28 th, 2005) following Monday Night Football), viewers were greeted not by the focus they had come to expect but by what Robert Bianco of USA Today called “a half-hour version of ‘20/20.’”18

The new “Nightline,” indeed, was more similar to other programs on network TV than to what it replaced. It carried two or three pieces in a 22-minute newshole. The packaging, graphics and framing of the pieces were more hyperventilated than in the past, and several critics contended that the program’s reports did not always deliver on some of the more grandiose promotional promises. The premiere episode featured the first installment in a series called “ Iraq : Stay In or Pull Out?” The following morning, USA Today’s Bianco noted that while “…Moran’s taped interview with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was newsworthy, we’ll apparently have to wait for him to address the question in the segment’s title…”19 There have also been signs of some of the same cross-promotional use of the program that has come to characterize other network news programs, particularly in the morning. One early segment, for instance, was a celebrity interview with the comedian Sarah Silverman, whose boyfriend, the program mentioned, is Jimmy Kimmel. Kimmel’s show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” airs after Nightline.20 Still, some of the segments remained focused on major news events.

More structurally, doing more stories each night logically raises the risk that people will have less time to work on their pieces. TV critics were mostly negative. Initial responses were that this was no longer “Nightline” as it used to be but a different program with the same name, and one that was less distinct from what is available elsewhere on the dial.

But it is perhaps unfair to judge the new “Nightline” so early in its transition. It was probably predictable, after all, that the program would be dinged after such a long and serious tenure. The argument could be made that critics and media watchers expected too much out of the box, or were primed to be critical.

Early ratings indicated that “Nightline’s” audience has not fully made up its mind about the new format, either. According to Media Life magazine, “For the week ended January 15, ‘Nightline’ averaged 3.6 million viewers, its highest viewership since the triumverate of Cynthia McFadden, Martin Bashir and Terry Moran took over as hosts in late November. But that was down 8% from the comparable week last year, when Koppel averaged 3.9 million viewers.”21

Public Television and the Documentary

In last year’s report, we discussed the unique role played by PBS’s “Frontline” program. With the new multi-story format of “Nightline,” Frontline stands even further apart from other network journalism offerings. With its focus on a single theme, “Frontline’s” documentary filmmaking approach and high production values attracted some 3 million viewers for each program during the 2004-2005 season.22

Heading into 2006, some observers speculated that the situation for journalistic documentaries might be improving. Certainly documentaries have found a new foothold in theaters and on DVDs. Films like “Supersize Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” broke through the perception that documentaries were stuffy, academic affairs. Oscar-nominated works like “The Boys of Baraka,” “March of the Penguins” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” illustrated the versatility of the genre.

While network television news divisions were moving away from documentaries, Public Broadcasting continued giving them an outlet. Along with “Frontline,” programs like “Wide Angle,” “POV” and “American Experience” offered viewers the opportunity to see current events, quite literally, through a new lens. “Wide Angle’s” “Border Jumpers” was an hour-long piece devoted to the subject of people attempting to illegally cross the national border of their wealthy neighbor in search of better jobs and opportunities. The countries in question, however, were not Mexico and the U.S. but Zimbabwe and Botswana . On “POV,” the filmmaker Ross McElwee’s “Bright Leaves” looked at the tobacco industry from an autobiographical perspective — his great-grandfather founded Bull Durham Tobacco. “American Experience” devoted a program to the September 1970 hijacking and eventual destruction of four commercial aircraft by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Some of those programs have had a decided liberal cast, but that is hardly the case exclusively. Perspective could become more of an issue, however, and add to pressures on PBS, if documentaries were found to play a significant role in future elections.

Meanwhile, cable channels like the History Channel, Discovery and others have always included documentaries in their programming, and some new players are moving high-profile projects to the airwaves. Showtime will be airing a new video version of the highly popular public radio show “This American Life.” Ted Koppel and members of the former “Nightline” team have moved their shop over to the Discovery Channel to start a documentary program on that network (See Economics, The Message of Nightline).


1. As noted in the State of the News Media 2005, a ratings point (1% of American homes with a TV set) implies many more people in 2005 than it did in 1969. With population increases and demographic trends like more single heads of households, there are many more homes than there were some 35 years ago. Thus, the decline of viewership is not as sharp as the decline in ratings.

2. Pew Research Center for People and the Press, “Online Newspaper Readership Countering Print Losses: Public More Critical of Press but Goodwill Persists,” June 26, 2005 , pg. 4. Survey information regarding public opinion on the assets of various media outlets was generated during follow-up interviews with a sub- sample of respondents who gave favorable opinions of the particular news source.

3. Ibid, pg. 19 (Numbers equal more than 100 percent for multiple responses).

4. Peter Johnson, “Webcasts, blogs allow flexibility,” USA Today, January 3, 2006.

5. The figure edged just slightly down, though the change was too small to be statistically significant.

6. Taken from a biography of Bob Schieffer posted at CBS Evening News Biographies.

7. Data supplied to the Project for Excellence in Journalism by the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

8. For the past decade, the Erdos & Morgan Opinion Leader survey has ranked The NewsHour first among all television news programs as the most credible, most objective, most influential and most current news program on television. The survey measures 58 broadcast, cable and public TV news programs.

9. Data taken from the NewsHour Web site:

10. Howard Kurtz, “Firms Paid TV’s Tech Gurus To Promote Their Products,” Washington Post, April 20, 2005.

11. Ibid. The Today Show later changed its rules for contributors to prevent such incidents in the future.

12., “Meet the Press No. 1 in November 2005 sweeps,” December 6, 2005.

13. The 90-minute “Sunday Morning” is part of a two-hour package of programming on CBS, followed by “Face the Nation,” the only one of the interview programs with a 30-minute format instead of an hour. In most markets, “Sunday Morning” precedes the political interview programs. Those programs tend to be in head-to-head competition with one another. “Sunday Morning” is the “number one news program on Sunday mornings among households and most demos,” Magna Global notes. The audience for “Sunday Morning” is just slightly younger than for ABC’s “This Week” or NBC’s “Meet the Press” (with a median age of 57 it ties “Face the Nation”).

14. Taken from the online transcript of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, January 13, 1999.

15. “60 Minutes II” was renamed after it aired a story regarding President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard which, it would later be revealed, was largely based on fraudulent documents. The program became “60 Minutes Wednesday,” only to revert to being “60 Minutes II” in July 2005, when it was moved to Friday nights. Its final broadcast was on September 2, 2005 .

16. Howard Kurtz, “ABC Mulls Changes to ‘Nightline’ With Or Without Koppel,” Washington Post, February 9, 2005.

17. Ibid.

18. Robert Bianco, “More is Much Less in Revamped ‘Nightline,’ ” USA Today, November 30, 2005.

19. Ibid.

20. The program aired on Friday, December 16, 2005 , in a segment called “Pushing the Envelope.” According to a transcript of the program, the correspondent Jack Tapper noted in a voiceover, “Silverman is involved with the man who hosts the show that airs after this one, Jimmy Kimmel.”

21. Abigail Azote, “A winter’s chill descends on ‘Nightline,’ ” Media Life, January 26, 2006.

22. Audience information supplied to the Project for Excellence in Journalism by Frontline.