Network News Investment
|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
Inside network newsrooms, 2005 may go down as a year of beginnings as much as endings. That was the year, in one case tragically, in another more because of controversy that two remaining long-time anchors departed, setting the stage for a generational change. Less noticed, yet equally significant, two of three networks saw turnover in news presidents. One network hired a major media figure to take over its online operations.
Three broad trends stand out:
On the web
Over the course of 2005, the networks made statements suggesting new recognition that instead of the TV set, the key to their future might be the Web, with its interactive, multi-media and on-demand qualities. But recognition and action do not always connect. What has happened so far?
Of the three, CBS has certainly attracted the most attention. That began with the hiring in April 2005 of Larry Kramer, the creator of CBS MarketWatch, to a new position as president of CBS Digital. Two months later, Kramer publicly told a gathering in Virginia : “You’ll see us morph our news business into a Web-centric one. We’re doing what we call the cable bypass. The Web is going to be our cable news network.” Part of that would be what Kramer called “a continuum of coverage throughout the day. You’ll have a menu of video, a continuous stream of video that you can pick and choose from.” He added that CBS would put its entire archive of news video online, making it free initially, and even ventured that “I would argue that the vaunted CBS news operation is going to be substantially supported by Web revenues. It’s not rocket science — if the audience is spending time on the Web, you’ve got to be on the Web.”1
Some of that is evident on the CBS Web site. By January 2006, CBS was the only network that allowed users to “Build Your Own Newscast” by creating a video playlist from CBS’s offerings, pulling together stories in a particular order and watching a newscast of their own creation. Through a video player named “The EyeBox,” CBSNews.com allows users to stream over 25,000 new and archived videos. CBS also announced it plans to offer daily and weekly video programming from Bob Schieffer, John Roberts, Hannah Storm, and other correspondents.
CBS has also devoted itself to unprecedented “transparency,” another hallmark of the Web. It created a separate Web site, Public Eye, that is more independent of the newsroom than anything at other networks. The site serves as a kind of online ombudsman, adopts the informal voice of the Web, involves outside contributors and includes a central discussion thread, monitored by the site’s editor, in which citizens can openly criticize and question CBS decision-making. The criticism often invites responses from the CBS News people who were involved in the stories being criticized.
The site also includes a fairly sizable menu for podcasting, where listeners, if not yet viewers, can download various CBS programs.
NBC News was probably first to innovate on the Web, for two reasons. First, the Web site of its news division is produced in cooperation with its online cousin, MSNBC.com, a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft. MSNBC.com provides prominent links to the homepages of MSNBC TV, the “Today Show,” “Nightly News,” “Dateline” and “Meet the Press,” alongside stories from the latest edition of Newsweek magazine, video packages from NBC’s broadcast and cable entities (on January 23, 2006 the site headlined CNBC video about the Ford Company’s plant closures), and a vast listing of stories on topics ranging from U.S. and international news to sports and entertainment (For more, please see the Cable News Investment chapter from this year’s report ).
NBCNews.com also offers podcasts of NBC news programs including highlights from “Today,” the complete broadcasts of the “Nightly News” (as of 11 p.m. EST ) and the full broadcast of “Meet the Press.” The site also hosts a variety of options from MSNBC including content from “Hardball,” “Scarborough Country” and “The Situation.”
NBC Nightly News also attracted the attention of many media writers when Brian Williams, still new to his role as the program’s anchor, wrote the first posting for “The Daily Nightly.” Launched on May 31, 2005 , it was designed to provide the evening newscast with a degree of transparency. It opened up a window for citizens to hear how decisions were made, why stories were selected and the things that go on when the cameras aren’t rolling. On September 29, Williams opened his post: “This afternoon we did a Special Report for our NBC stations on the swearing-in ceremony for Chief Justice John Roberts. While the White House notified the networks that they had scheduled a 3 p.m. EDT event, (and we had planned accordingly for that ‘hard start’ time) we received a two-minute warning (while I was in our afternoon editorial meeting) at 2:51:50 , almost ten minutes early. By the time I got to the studio (after traveling at a high rate of speed, past at least one tour group walking between our NBC News studios) we had missed the top of the President’s remarks. We have protested via e-mail to members of the White House communications staff.”2
NBC’s approach is interesting. Many enthusiasts believe the new media environment — online broadcasts, podcasts, blogs and vlogs — emphasizes the role of the citizen/user. Individual news consumers are able to choose what stories to view and listen to or read them in whatever order they wish. By choosing to place the “Nightly News” broadcast online in its entirety, and build the blog around the anchor, NBC is signaling the importance of the anchor as editor and manager of the network’s news content.
ABC’s big distinction is that it is for now the only network to Webcast a live pre-edition of its evening news. A version of the program airs on the Web at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time and is then made available for download at any time after 4:00 .
“World News Tonight’s” blog serves very much the same function as NBC’s “Daily Nightly,” offering viewers or online readers an opportunity to get additional information about the stories of the day, to hear about what goes on behind the scenes and to hear it told in a fashion that they might not get in the more formal setting of a news broadcast. During the Supreme Court hearings for Samuel Alito, “This Week’s” anchor, George Stephanopolous, sent Blackberry messages to the site including: “Only after Joe Biden snarkily promised that he wouldn’t ask Alito for the ‘blood test‘ his conservative colleagues seemed to want from President Bush’s last nominee Harriett Miers did Alito let loose with a little grin that seemed to say…’what a jerk.’”3 To be sure, ABC News was already very familiar with the possibilities of blogs. The network’s political unit made a notable online impression with its groundbreaking political blog “The Note” in January of 2002. That blog, which actually started out as an internal e-mail, has become a significant online destination for political junkies and insiders.
Beyond the differences, a review of the three sites heading into 2006 showed that to a casual observer, the three sites had much in common: each featured blogs; each offered video online; and each offered its newscast online. Each site offered content beyond what had aired on TV, and each was trying, in varying degrees, to take advantage of what the Web offers that TV does not — infinite space and time (on January 13, 2006, ABC News offered a podcast of the co-anchor Bob Woodruff speaking to ABC News’s Hari Sreenivasan and Jake Tapper about his trip to the Mideast); the ability to scroll through complicated packages of information at the visitor’s own pace (CBSNews.com featured a graphics-rich timeline and deconstruction of the CIA Leak story); and the ability to pull news and news stories (including video) at a time that suits the visitor’s schedule, not that of the network.
What the three sites really offered heading into 2006 was the sense that the networks have come to the conclusion that the Web may be their future rather than their demise. What is not yet clear, realistically, is what they will make of it or how they will make money from it. But the recognition, it seems, is now there.
Staffing and Workload
The long-term picture for staffing and workload in network news has been grim. As the networks have seen their audiences cut in half, putting huge pressures on revenue, they have repeatedly cut staff.
One strong indication of that came from researchers counting how many different correspondents appeared on the news programs each year. Joe Foote at Arizona State University tracked the pattern over 20 years and found that the number of reporters who appeared on network news had declined by more than a third from its peak in 1985, from 76.7 to 50 in 2002. That is a drop of 35%.
That reduction in staff in turn meant an increase in reporter workload. In 1985, reporters appearing in evening newscasts did an average of 31.4 stories a year. By 2002, that number had climbed to 40.9, according to Foote.
Research by Andrew Tyndall’s ADT Research has tracked a similar decline using a slightly different sample. (Tyndall tracks newscasts on weekdays; Foote, who ended his research in 2003, on all seven days.)
In 2005, data from Andrew Tyndall’s ADT Research found basically no change from a year ago in the number of correspondents or in the number of stories being done.
There are, however, differences by network, or at least at one network.
The CBS “Evening News” continues to have notably fewer correspondents than NBC or ABC (about 15% fewer) doing substantially more work.
In 2004, by Tyndall’s count, NBC had 46 correspondents averaging 39 stories each (to be counted, a correspondent had to produce at least 5 stories during the year). In 2005, the figure changed just slightly with 45 correspondents averaging 39 reports. Tyndall notes that “Nightly News’s” anchor, Brian Williams, did more field reporting than his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, meaning fewer correspondents were used.
At ABC, the network in 2004 had 47 correspondents producing on average even fewer pieces, 35 a year. Those figures remained the same in 2005.
In 2004, at CBS, there were only 39 correspondents, with an average of 46 stories. In 2005, the folks at CBS continued to be the network workhorses with 41 correspondents averaging 44 reports.
While there are no comparable data for off-air personnel, most people in network TV whom the authors of this report have talked to over the years acknowledge that the cutbacks in such staff members are probably comparable or even greater as technology has reduced the number of people necessary to produce television news programming.
What to make of those numbers each year is always a matter of some debate. Some argue that fewer reporters are necessary today because technology makes it is easier for reporters to “front” stories that are developed by other staff people and using feed material. A reporter need not always be on the scene. That may even be advantageous; a reporter can integrate material from more sources. Others argue that having a correspondent assemble material back in a bureau or in New York makes for a less informed, more generic kind of coverage, lacking feel or deeper knowledge of the situation. Either way, the assembly approach is a major change in TV newsgathering.
It is also impossible to know from the data whether all the cutbacks in staff have occurred because of increased productivity or whether productivity has been increased because there have been so many cutbacks. Nor can we know whether those two trends are in balance.
Another measure of newsgathering resources is the number of bureaus, particularly abroad, since the networks can, in effect, use their affiliates’ newsrooms as a domestic bureau when the need arises — as when Katrina struck New Orleans or when wildfires struck Texas . As noted in past years, the number of overseas bureaus at the networks has been roughly cut in half since their peak in the 1980s, about the time that network news divisions began to feel the impact of cable and began to be viewed by owners as profit centers.
According to accounting by American Journalism Review, ABC had gone from 13 foreign bureaus to 6 by the summer of 2003. NBC had done the same. CBS had gone from 10 to 6.4
In 2005, CBS reported 11 foreign bureaus, with operations in Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Bonn, Johannesburg, London, Moscow, Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv and Tokyo. ABC failed to respond to repeated requests by the Project for numbers for 2005. As of 2004, ABC was operating six bureaus — Baghdad, London, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Nairobi and Beijing .
And NBC reported that it was operating bureaus in 11 foreign cities: Amman, Baghdad, Beijing, Cairo, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London, Mexico City, Moscow, Tel Aviv and Tokyo.
Network correspondents have frequently argued that the number of bureaus by itself can be an incomplete measure. Some bureaus today are staffed by producers without correspondents, which was less often the case two decades ago when networks controlled a much larger share of the TV audience.
It is not clear, however, how many of the current bureaus have correspondents and crews and how many are places that have a producer or just a part-time stringer, in some cases working from home.
This difference arguably influences coverage. Traditionalists argue that a producer in-country does not have the same leverage to get stories on the air as would a producer and correspondent together, or even the same leverage to go out and produce enterprise pieces on their own. Nor, perhaps, would the knowledge of the country, particularly top-echelon officials, be the same without a correspondent on the scene full time.
Others, however, argue that the nature of foreign coverage has changed. Globalization, cultural and economic, has moved some news organizations to the idea that most news items depend less on strong familiarity with a foreign culture and more on knowledge of the topic itself. So, for example, a news division is more likely to send a medical reporter to cover the bird flu outbreak in China or a business reporter to do a story on service outsourcing to India . Some also argue that it can add to the quality of foreign reporting to recruit strong foreign producers and off-air reporters (who speak the language and know the culture) to make certain the story is told accurately. That is not to say that traditional foreign bureaus couldn’t work, but the cost of maintaining a skilled overseas bureau is something the networks have often decided they can no longer afford. Yet the alternative approach, its proponents contend, is not without its advantages.
The question is whether the networks are adopting the approach of hiring skilled local journalists or merely local logistical fixers who know how to arrange hotels and cars when a correspondent team parachutes in.
In the inaugural 2004 edition of this report we included a full discussion of the implications of the cutbacks, and we refer anyone who wants to examine this issue in depth to that. In brief, however, some network news professionals we have consulted with argue that counting people does not tell the whole story. The networks in the 1980s, they suggest, were bloated. New technologies have also allowed more productivity. And if one were to compare a network story today to one 20 years ago, the number of elements and video sources that can be assembled into a piece is notably higher today, even with fewer correspondents.
Network veterans who tend to see the cutbacks differently argue that the scale of the cuts exceeds what might be justified by efficiency, that what has been lost is often the institutional memory and skills of veteran correspondents, and that forcing fewer people to do more stories has an unavoidable impact on the time put into stories. Reporters are forced to rely more on releases and talking points without being able to do original reporting and newsgathering. It limits the ability to go to where the news is being made and to research, verify, edit and write reports — in addition to the ability to do enterprise stories off the beaten path, to break news or blaze new trails. The networks’ political teams used to consist of five or six correspondents; more recently the number has been two or three.
The embrace of new media and the cross-media portfolios of many networks’ parent companies are forcing reporters to operate in an environment that, because they are now producing for multiple platforms, virtually exceeds the 24-hour news cycle.
There is merit, we think, to both arguments. A viewer can be dazzled by the quality of a nightly newscast, on a heavy news day in particular. It is on the days when the obvious news is not so heavy, and in the ability of the newscasts to sustain coverage over an extended period of time on a major story without fatigue, that network insiders say and our own viewing affirms that the differences become clear.
Andrew Tyndall, a collaborator on this report, says he finds that the cutbacks do not affect the major stories but the middle-tier ones. Iraq and campaign 2004 were both covered as heavily as they would have been 20 years ago. What gets cut is the middle-rank story, which requires assignment expense to dispatch a correspondent. That is more likely to become a read-only or voiceover video nowadays.
In addition to staff and bureau cutbacks, the networks have also cut back on the amount of news in each newscast, the block of the newscast that excludes advertising and network promotions and teases. The notion that the 30-minute newscast was really a 22-minute newscast is no longer true. It is closer to 18 minutes.
Some in television believe that the shrinkage of the newshole is an underrated factor in audience erosion. If TV news viewing involves some trade-off between the annoyance of watching commercials and the gain of watching the news, then the annoyance factor is up by over two minutes from an earlier era. Conversely, Tyndall believes that the fact that two of the morning news programs (“Today” and “Good Morning America”) now offer an initial 20 minutes of programming uninterrupted by commercials is a factor in their recent audience growth.
Data from Tyndall show that the amount of time devoted to news on the half-hour nightly news broadcasts shrunk 11% in 12 years, from 21 minutes in 1991, after the first Gulf War, to 18.7 minutes in 2002, on the eve of the second Gulf War. Extra time devoted to coverage of the September 11 attacks in 2001 accounts for the only anomaly in the downward trend.
In 2005 the average time devoted strictly to news showed a slight increase after four years of decline. Data from Andrew Tyndall show 19 minutes on average with just slight differences among the networks. NBC had the largest news hole, 19.2 minutes, and ABC the smallest, 18.1, with CBS at 18.7.
Information on the news hole of the morning shows is more limited, but it shows a similar trend. Over 10 years, every hour of morning news contains 2 fewer minutes of programming — 44 minutes 10 seconds in 1992, down to 41 minutes 57 seconds in 2001 — according to a study from the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. The study was discontinued after 2001.
Last year, Andrew Tyndall did a census in which he found that morning shows were averaging 42.5 minutes of news each hour. This was an uptick from the American Association of Advertising Agencies 2001 figure of 41.6 minutes.5 Data from a one-month study conducted by Tyndall in 2005 indicated that the news hole figure for morning shows increased slightly to 42.7 minutes. Over the course of his study, “Good Morning America’s” newshole averaged 42.6 minutes an hour, the “Early Show” averaged 42.4 minutes and the “Today Show” 43.3 minutes.6
There are several facets to consider. Shrinking the news hole reduces the size of the product, and packs more ads, teases and promos into the show, which may make it more irritating to viewers. On the other hand, all that also translates into more revenue for the news division that could be used, if executives were so inclined, for correspondents, equipment, salaries and other resources to gather the news. Shrinking the news hole also means that less news has to be gathered each day to fill a newscast.
The Evening Anchors
Even more than staff size, bureaus, or other newsroom statistics, though, much of the 2005 discussion of investment in network news stemmed from changes behind the anchor desks. What kind of investment would each of the networks make in choosing replacements? Would they bring someone with fresh ideas to shake up and hopefully add life to the struggling broadcasts in the long run? Would they stay with what they already knew? How much support would the new anchors have? How much money could be saved by replacing a celebrity with a relative rookie? How much money would have to be spent to attract another network’s celebrity to jump ship?
In early April 2005, ABC found itself in an unexpected position. The only Big Three network that was expected to maintain its evening news anchor lost that advantage when Peter Jennings took leave to undergo chemotherapy treatments for lung cancer. Anticipating the 67-year old Jennings’s return, the network filled the anchor position temporarily, rotating between the “20/20” co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas and “Good Morning America’s” Charles Gibson. As it would play out, Jennings would not return. The man who had been the “ABC World News Tonight” anchor for 22 years lost his cancer battle on August 7.
Jennings’s death left ABC in a different position from its rivals. At CBS, Dan Rather’s final days as anchor were marred by “Memogate” and third-place ratings, and management seemed almost eager to move out from under his shadow, not asking Rather to cover Hurricane Katrina, precisely his kind of story. At NBC, viewers saw anchor Tom Brokaw gradually hand the reins over to Brian Williams. Jennings’s departure, by contrast, was unplanned and unwanted. In the end, though, ABC seems to have invested heavily in the future.
After months of mulling it over, ABC announced in early December 2005 that it would move the broadcast to a two-anchor format. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff would now fill Jennings’s chair. Not since the 1960s when Chet Huntley and David Brinkley anchored for NBC had a multiple anchor arrangement led to a No. 1 ranking in a national newscast. The four subsequent attempts all proved problematic. Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner anchored the ABC newscast starting in 1976. Jennings, Max Robinson and Frank Reynolds tri-anchored for ABC from 1978 to 1983 (with Reynolds in D.C., Robinson in Chicago and Jennings as foreign desk anchor). Roger Mudd and Tom Brokaw co-anchored on NBC between April 1982 and September 1983, when Brokaw took over as the solo anchor. Dan Rather and Connie Chung shared the CBS anchor desk from 1993 to 1995.
The most basic problem, according to the conventional wisdom, is that in a modern 30-minute network newscast (18 minutes of news time) dominated by correspondent packages, the anchor is on screen talking for only about 5.5 minutes. Unlike local TV newscasts around the country, which are on for many more hours and involve fewer correspondents and more anchor “tell stories,” that might not be enough airtime to share.
ABC’s argument is that in the 21 st century, that may be changing. The network says it plans to make the anchors more onscreen — and on-the-road —reporters rather than omniscient news readers. And as the network newscast moves into an online environment, where the user is deciding which stories to access, the single anchor is no longer the navigator of the news. The consumer may be. In that environment, two anchors may be two brand figures, covering stories, being on the scene, offering flexibility. In a USA Today article on January 3, 2006 , the day of the debut of ABC’s new setup for “World News Tonight,” co-anchor Vargas was quoted as saying, “This is not a cosmetic dual-anchor role… This is two people doing two people’s work.”7 As executives at ABC see it, one anchor could be reporting from the field while another worked from inside the studio. When “World News’s” new anchors made their formal debut, Woodruff reported from Iran while Vargas anchored from the network’s New York studio.
The strategy is not without its consequences, as ABC learned after Woodruff was seriously injured while reporting from Iraq when an improvised explosive device struck the convoy he and cameraman Doug Vogt were traveling in. It was unclear, as of March 2006, if Woodruff would recover enough to return to his job, and if so, whether he would ever be healthy enough to resume the role of field reporter ABC imagined. If not, one question was whether ABC and other networks would see Woodruff’s injury as too great a risk and retreat from the anchor-as-field-reporter strategy.
The dual-anchor format was just one part of ABC’s evening news strategy. Another key element was time.
ABC’s nightly newscast expanded from being simply a broadcast live at 6:30 p.m. on the East Coast. It created three successive live broadcasts that offered the West Coast its own edition rather than an updated taped package. Conscious of the changes that have occurred in the workday since the launch of the 6:30 p.m. broadcast time, “World News Tonight” also created a live 15-minute webcast that can be viewed live at 3 p.m. on ABCNews.com or downloaded anytime after 4 p.m. ET .
Heading into 2006, the changes facing CBS remained uncertain. The network still needed to find a new anchor for its nightly newscast and a new primary personality to front its news division under a new news president. Perhaps no network had reached the point where it depended as much on a single personality as CBS did on Rather. The network had never succeeded in creating a major morning anchor. Rather also anchored “48 Hours,” one of its prime-time magazines, and the mid-week edition of “60 Minutes” program and operated in any case as a kind of island inside the news division.
Rather already had problems fronting “Evening News” before he left. Since 1997, its viewership had been in decline, and since 1998 it had been sliding deeper and deeper into third place. Even after Rather’s departure the program’s ratings suffered. For the week of April 17, 2005 (about one month after Rather’s departure and after Peter Jennings left the ABC anchor chair) the CBS’s “Evening News” averaged roughly 6 million viewers. According to Media Life Magazine, that was the lowest rating the program had posted “since Nielsen started people meter measurement in 1987.”8
Most of the speculation focused on CBS management’s not-so-private efforts to lure NBC’s “Today Show” host Katie Couric to the “Evening News” anchor chair. Couric made no attempt to deny that such a move was contemplated and even addressed the early critics, such as Jon Friedman at “MarketWatch,” who suggested she lacked the gravitas to anchor in the evening. Bill Carter, in a December 2005 article for the New York Times, wrote that Couric, while acknowledging that the diverse programming of “Today” suited her, “added that she believed the broader television news business was changing. ‘People don’t want to see robo-anchors regurgitating whatever is on the teleprompter in front of them. They want people to be natural, people who feel things, who react to things.’9 ” The interim “Evening News” anchor, Bob Schieffer, also gave Couric an early vote of support in December, saying, “I’m hoping we can get her… People believe her. They take her seriously.”10
On December 2, 2004 , Brian Williams took over the anchor chair at the NBC “Nightly News.” As far as viewership is concerned, NBC and ABC have been in close competition, and some wondered what impact the transition would have.
Nielsen ratings for the week ending January 2, 2005 found NBC (11.2 million viewers) maintaining its lead over ABC (10.4 million viewers) and continuing its dominance over CBS (8.1 million viewers).11
With Williams, the program’s seventh anchor and managing editor, NBC has been working to rewrite the role of the traditional network news anchor. Williams has often stepped from behind the anchor desk, on-camera to cover stories from the field, online in the “Daily Nightly” and even into the guest chair of the leading source of “fake news,” the “Daily Show.”
There are numerous questions to consider moving forward. As the network news programs establish their online identities, will a new audience be created? Will limited resources hinder the possibilities generated by the availability of multiple platforms? Will the network news divisions’ online experiments lead to true innovation?
1. Andrew Nachison, “Larry Kramer: CBS will be web centric and bypass cable,” Media Center Blog, Posted on June 22, 2005 04:53 p.m..
2. Brian Williams, “Jumping the Gun, and Counting the Dead,” The Daily Nightly, www.msnbc.com, posted 5:05pm EDT, September 29, 2005.
3. George Stephanopoulos, “Why is Judge Alito Smiling?,” The World Newser, January 9, 2006.
5. The AAAA and Association of National Advertisers, Inc. report was discontinued in 2001.
6. Data from ADT Research.
7. Peter Johnson, “ABC News team makes formal debut tonight,” USA Today, January 3, 2005.
8. Abigail Azote, “Post-Rather, CBS news really sinks,” Media Life Magazine online archives, April 25, 2005
9. Bill Carter, “Amid Rumors, ‘Today’ Marks 10 Years as Weekly Ratings King,” New York Times, December 8, 2005.
10. Robert P. Laurence, “Network news opts for style over substance,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 22, 2005.
11. Diego Vasquez, “It’s NBC’s Brian Williams by a length,” Media Life Magazine online archives, January 6, 2005.