TV News Searches for a 21st Century Winning Model
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The Fiscal Times
July 2, 2013

TV news is not an industry for the faint of heart. In journalism, there is an old saying: You’re only as good as your last story – and nowhere is the axiom more apt than in a business with a swarm of network and cable competitors as well as competition for eyeballs from websites and social-media juggernauts such as Facebook and Twitter. Plus, TV journalists face the age-old intense pressure to be first (and, on a good day, correct as well).

Everywhere you look on the tube these days, you’ll find dislocation bordering on outright pandemonium. Does a TV network need to present more, and more perky, photogenic anchors and reporters – or veterans who can automatically call upon a well of knowledge?

The common denominator, as always, is anxious network leaders groping to concoct a winning formula of journalists, personalities, pundits and shows that the public wants to watch. “Destination-viewing,” they call it in the trade.

Consider just some of the headlines coming out of the TV news world lately:

  • At what is being marketed as the New CNN, President Jeff Zucker is scrambling – and there is no more appropriate word – to make the pieces of the network’s jigsaw puzzle fit and coalesce into a ratings force that woos viewers from Fox News and MSNBC. “CNN is struggling to transcend its brand as the place to turn when big news breaks. It beat MSNBC in ratings when a succession of news stories prompted viewers to watch their work,” said Eric Deggens, the TV/media critic of the Tampa Bay Times.

    Zucker is steadily dismantling the “old” CNN. For instance, he installed Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan and Michaela Pereira as the faces of the morning show, dubbed “New Day,” where CNN sorely needed bolstering. Also out with the old: Howard Kurtz, the host of the long-running media-commentary program “Reliable Sources” recently departed for Fox News.
  • NBC News, observing the potentially lucrative nature of the so-called TV news-magazine shows, gave “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams a primetime show, “Rock Center.” Even though Williams is the top-rated evening-news anchor and a highly popular TV figure, the show failed to find an audience and NBC killed it. “‘Rock Center’ never found an identity as a newsmagazine and too often presented quality journalism as dull, buzzless information,” Deggans said. “If you ask people to eat vegetables each week, you can't be surprised if they stop showing up. Constant timeslot changes and a lack of steady work from high-profile correspondents didn't help.
  • The “PBS NewsHour,” one of the most prestigious broadcasts on television, is also feeling the pinch of uncertain times. It is planning the first major round of layoffs in almost two decades. “The NewsHour is struggling with the same downturns in donations every public broadcasting outlet faces,” Deggens, the author of “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” pointed out. “At a time of increased competition, traditional news outlets need to find new ways to engage their audiences; those with the strongest identities usually win.”

The common thread running through these three developments is the long-running fight to somehow win a larger slice of an aging audience that gets more and more fragmented as news channels and media platforms proliferate. The evening newscasts of the three major networks have lost more than 27 million viewers since 1980, or 526.6 percent of their audience, according to a Pew Research Center report on “The State of the News Media 2013.” The average age of network evening news viewers is 53, the Pew report points out, compared to a median age of 37 for the U.S. population as of 2010.

Extremely well-paid television programmers still struggle to find the right personnel, news approach, point of view, political persuasion (if any), hour of the day and marketing program. Yet their formula, at least at the major networks, has stayed largely the same. “Whatever the causes of the audience erosion, and despite gloomy predictions about the future of evening news, network executives are standing pat with the structure of their news programming,” the Pew analysis concluded. The cable news networks, by contrast, have made some changes in recent years: They’ve converged on an increasingly similar mix, heavy on interview segments and opinion, even if their political perspectives are very different.

There’s more, too. Brian Steinberg, senior TV news editor at Variety, cites the unending progression of technological devices as a critical reason for the industry upheaval. “It's the Internet, mobile devices, Google News and so much more,” Steinberg said in an interview. “The ease at which information is disseminated has turned news into a commodity and the information is now available at people's fingertips. They don’t always need to tune into a “traditional” authority to get the news they need. They might just find it on Twitter, in an IM or in a link passed along from a friend.”

Those larger trends, of course, aren’t new, even if the specific technologies keep changing. Consider this New York Times headline: “The Tumult in TV News.” The accompanying piece earnestly asked: “Does increased attention to style and cosmetics deflect attention from the more substantive business of gathering news?” It’s an eternal question in TV journalism. Indeed, the Times posited the above question in a piece published on March 1, 1982.

Clearly, the more things change, the more they remain the same in TV news.

So as they look ahead in this topsy-turvy age of new technology, television programmers might do well to think back to an episode of the popular sit-com “Taxi” involving Iggy, the stoned-out can driver played brilliantly by Christopher Lloyd. Mistaken for a slovenly shoeshine man, Iggy once befriended a suave TV executive played by Martin Short and helped him by uncannily picking winner after winner from a lineup of TV pilots.

Iggy didn’t bother with anything as elaborate as focus groups, audience surveys or network research data – he simply operated by the seat of his pants. The funny episode underscored the chancy nature of predicting a successful TV show, at least the way industry executives do it.

Maybe those executives in charge of CNN, NBC and PBS, among others, should consult the resident shoeshine before deciding on next season’s lineup of shows.