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Network TV – Intro


By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Two years into a new generation of anchors, one hard reality about network news is clearer than before.

Changing the cast and even the content of the programs will not change the dynamics of the enterprise. The limitations of time slot, changing lifestyles and the growing desire of Americans to get their news on demand are more compelling. The problem was not that the anchors had been there too long or that the shows were too traditional.

There are glimmers in the data from 2008 we have not seen before. Audience numbers continued to fall during the year, both for morning and evening, but more slowly than in the past. And late in the year—and on into early 2009—they began to rise as the story turned to the economy, a complex trend story rather than a binary political campaign debate.

If anything the message contained in the newest data is an encouraging one for traditionalists: the programs faring best on the networks, among them NBC’s Nightly News and CBS’ 60 Minutes, share something in approach, a seriousness of purpose, a sense of responsibility and a confidence that the significant can be made interesting.

That is confirmed, too, by our content analysis. What the networks produce, especially in the evening, is becoming harder to find anywhere else in television news. The newscasts, the evening programs in particular, are broader in subject matter than cable news shows, closer to a newspaper front page, and more likely to contain reported, taped story packages that can be posted online, than any other daily programs on television. These qualities may also lend themselves to explaining the complexity of a collapsing economy.

The recession, nonetheless, is affecting everything and making a bad situation worse. While revenues have been under pressure for years, only one of the three network news divisions operated at a significant profit, and one may have just broken even. And some programs enjoying audience gains now are suffering revenue declines anyway because of the economy. It has reached the point, insiders say, where some stories are skipped because they are simply too expensive to cover. Perhaps one of the few bright spots is that news, at the moment, holding audience better comparatively than network entertainment.

The commercial network news divisions now compete with three clear disadvantages.

The first, almost never mentioned, is that their economic model significantly hinders them compared with cable television. All their revenue must come from advertising. They receive nothing in subscription fees from television providers as the cable channels do, even if they are part of the reason, especially in the digital age, that people buy cable or satellite TV. If networks did receive subscription fee, their economic profile would look vastly different.

Second, after years of cutbacks and declining audiences, it is hard for network professionals to generate a spirit of raw innovation or bold vision. Many in network news feel a strong sense of tradition and responsibility, but there is an air to it of greatness that is past rather than ahead. The most recent efforts at building something new and big are several years old (NBC’s cross-platform strategy) or have been scaled back (CBS’ plans online).

And third, despite their efforts, the three network news divisions remain, financially and culturally, at their core broadcast television operations. They offer their news at prescribed hours on programs of defined duration in an age when consumers increasingly want news on demand.

Over the long term, we and others have suggested before, the survival of the networks’ news divisions may well depend on escaping the mindset and the brand of being tied to broadcast television. Can they become news operations whose identity is truly multiplatform, extending and exploiting across media their distinctive skills – telling stories, offering knowledgeable correspondents, featuring quality video and sober judgment.

It is clearer in 2009 than before that this strategy, if it is the right one, will not come as easily as some hoped. On its face, NBC has gone the farthest. But while CNBC and the Weather Channel are clearer fits, the MSNBC brand on cable is now increasingly built around opinion. on the Web is still another brand, built heavily around text and wire copy, and co-owned with Microsoft and produced on the Microsoft “campus” in Washington State. As the site notes, it “features” NBC News, as if more a partner than an identity. Financially, the multiplatform operation Andrew Lack helped design in the 1990s has been a boon. Publicly and even internally, it is more complex, something that shares costs but not quite so clearly extends brand.

ABC News wandered away from building a cable operation in the mid-1990s, when it was at its peak as a news organization, and its website as a consequence lags that of NBC.

CBS News, long suffering, has tried in fits and starts to develop a digital presence, but its strategy keeps changing and it has no cable channel. For both ABC and CBS, alliances with CNN and others are often posited, but the problems to date have appeared too great.

If the network news divisions are to move beyond broadcast television to thrive, it is clearer to see how NBC might succeed. The route appears far more difficult elsewhere.