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Network TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

It was the year people had been waiting for in network news.

Finally things were going to change in a medium where so much seemed so constant — the format, the style, and for the previous two decades the faces of the anchors. Even the erosion of the audience was steady, roughly a million fewer viewers of nightly news a year.

This year, 2006, was expected to be different. One network hoped to create a new format of two young anchors, one in the field and one on the set — a dashing young man and a beautiful young mother — an arrangement conceived in part for demographics and in part for moving the news online.

Another network said it planned to rethink the evening newscast, to bring arguably the biggest name in the business from the morning and to shake up the content and the audience of evening news.

The medium’s long-time leader, meanwhile, seemed possibly vulnerable, losing its biggest star in the morning, and banking on continuity, not change, in the evening.

Two things seemed most likely to occur. With all the new attention, promotion and innovation, the audience for network news might suddenly begin to grow again. Or there might suddenly be more loss. When the past generation of respected anchors left their chairs, would the largely older audience decide they didn’t like the new faces and new styles and drop away? Change could revive the networks. It could also hasten their decline.

It turned out, at least in 2006, that neither occurred. Network evening news would end the year losing audience at the same pace as it had for years.

The stunning wounding of ABC’s Bob Woodruff in Iraq destroyed the plans at ABC, and the network turned to a respected veteran, Charles Gibson, to take over its newscast, something that audiences seemed to like. The experiments at CBS with Katie Couric, meanwhile, can’t yet be judged, but the network’s hope that after a few months she would have gained as many new viewers as she lost, and built from there, had not materialized when the year ended. Critics and audiences alike seemed unmoved by CBS’s changes to the evening news.

Morning news, after a shakeup in personnel, saw some modest losses, but nothing different from the year before.

None of this is to say news is not still enormously profitable and an important part of the networks’ operations. Even the decline of television news magazines seems to have stabilized. The old model, in which each news magazine is a distinct brand rather than simply an advertisement for the news division overall, seems to be back in fashion.

But as the year ended, NBC made the biggest noise by coining something it called NBCU 2.0. Boiled down, what it meant was the company was scaling back on television. It said it would invest more online. So far, it seems to mean that the Internet was immune from the cutting.