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A scramble for news you can't refuse

Sunday, May 20, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

The first casualty of any economic downturn, whether real or imagined, is almost always advertising. Companies slash their budgets and buy fewer ads on TV and in print.

It stands to reason the second casualty is the news business, whose lifeblood is ad revenue. So the economic crises and resulting job cuts at CNN, CBS, NBC, NBCi, Walt Disney Co. (ABC), PBS, BET, newspapers of all sizes -- the list goes on -- should come as no surprise.

But even before the economy stumbled, the news business was in the midst of substantial change.

CNN, for almost 20 years the leader in cable news, saw its dominance eroded by upstarts MSNBC and Fox News Channel.

With the advent of multiple all-news cable channels and instant updates available on the Internet, ratings for the national evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC have dropped precipitously in the past 30 years.

Is it any wonder that in an unscientific poll at Vote.com, Web surfers have overwhelmingly chosen "nobody" over the likes of Tim Russert, Diane Sawyer and Ed Bradley to replace Dan Rather when he steps down as anchor of "CBS Evening News"?

The rationale: "CBS doesn't need an evening newscast," Vote.com explains. "We can get our news from other sources. If an anchor that has received virtually every honor in broadcast journalism can't give viewers a reason to watch, nothing will."

No wonder there's speculation that a merger between CNN and CBS News could be in the offing. Even Rather is open to the idea, telling the New York Observer this month he'd "love to do the 'CBS Evening News with Dan Rather' and then turn around at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night and do the 'CNN Global News with Dan Rather' [with] the resources of CBS. As a news organization, that would be amazing."

Just this week, reports surfaced that CNN is in talks about sharing newsgathering operations with ABC, although ABC Television Network president Alex Wallau told Inside.com any deal would not involve putting ABC talent on CNN.

Star power works

The times, they are a-changin'.

Matthew Felling, media director at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Media and Public Affairs, said the networks' evening newscasts will continue to exist, at least for the near future.

"But they will be the first to acknowledge their roles have changed," Felling said. "They no longer bring you the news. In a multimedia age, they contextualize the news. They understand and acknowledge people probably heard the day's events on a news radio station or on the Internet. Their job is to digest it while respecting the fact not everybody heard the day's news. That's why one of America's fastest-growing industries is punditry."

The success of Chris Matthews on CNBC and MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel has led CNN to alter its emphasis. Despite laying off hundreds this year, newly installed AOL Time-Warner networks chairman Jamie Kellner told USA Today that CNN will see changes, most notably higher profile anchors.

"We respect stars," said Kellner, formerly in charge of The WB. "We come from a world where stars are very, very important, and we understand how to work with them."

News used to be the star at CNN. Now the return of "Moneyline" anchor Lou Dobbs takes priority (along with the hiring of former "NYPD Blue" star Andrea Thompson, who will anchor for CNN Headline News).

The money saved by cutting 400 jobs can be poured into the bank accounts of these "stars." Viewers are none the wiser, Felling said, because the layoffs mostly affected behind-the-scenes personnel. But those people had important jobs, and Felling equates layoffs with a lower quality of news information.

"They would check and double-check and verify, and when you lose that, the quality and accuracy of information diminishes," Felling said. "The emphasis is being placed on who is telling you the news instead of what the news is. It's very significant when CNN starts advertising not the awards won or the accuracy of its information or plaudits from the news industry but just that Lou Dobbs is coming back."

Nor surprisingly, Dobbs disagrees.

"The word 'star' in our field attaches itself to men and women who are first and foremost outstanding journalists," Dobbs said. "That kind of commitment to have the best at the anchor desk hosting the broadcast is representative of the commitment CNN has always had to news gathering. I know for a fact Jamie Kellner and his management team are absolutely committed to even raising the level of broadcast journalism."

But the growing array of news outlets has some of those working for them concerned about what TV news is becoming.

"Twenty-five years ago, when evening came and America wanted to find news, you looked up and there were two planets in the evening sky, CBS and NBC. ABC was not even a player then," said "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw. "Now we have the equivalent of the Big Bang, a whole new cosmos out there, and all these planets light up the evening sky, and they all have a voracious appetite, and they keep turning over the same story again and again because they have pictures of it.

"My fear is it becomes kind of a visual wallpaper. That does require us to provide some perspective. The mantra of the day is 'keep the change coming, keep pushing.' But as we go forward, we need to examine the nature of what we do and how we do it."

Don't think Brokaw is badmouthing his industry, though.

"I think we're doing a better job than we get credit for," he said, adding that today's TV news compares favorably to sensational newspapers of the 19th century. "There are always going to be excesses. That's part of the great privilege of having the First Amendment, the vigorous coverage of things, and we ought to have that."

Speaking by phone on the Friday that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh's execution was postponed, Brokaw said he was concerned TV news outlets would go all-McVeigh all-the-time over the weekend.

"I worry that could push out some other things," Brokaw said. "As you look to the evening sky, you don't want to focus on one development, you want to know what else is going on, and we have an obligation to remind people of that."

ABC's "World News Tonight" anchor Peter Jennings expressed his own fears for the future of TV news when he accepted the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut this week.

"I cannot remember a time when we have been under such pressure to get an audience, to get the 18-to-49 demographic, because that's what the advertiser wants," Jennings was quoted as saying in USA Today. "I fear that one thing competition and financial constraints have done is not only to send us chasing the same story but very often forcing us to know in advance what we are going to get. Doing it this way results in the sameness we so often see. It is competitive madness, which frustrates the viewer."

Sometimes even what was once a major news event is no longer deemed worthy of broadcast time. Philip Seib, a professor of journalism at Marquette University and author of "Going Live: Getting the News Right in a Real-Time, Online World" ($24.95, Rowman & Littlefield), points to coverage of last year's political conventions.

"We saw that feeling of the broadcast networks that, 'We can let CNN and others on cable shoulder the burden of this coverage, and we'll do our highlights,' " Seib said.

Even without a CNN-CBS News merger, there's already a de facto sharing of responsibility for some news outlets. NBC can steer viewers to MSNBC or CNBC. For sports news, ABC can rely on ESPN, because both companies are owned by the Walt Disney Co.

"The simple reason is economics," Seib said. "There's not enough advertising revenue to go around. We're long past the days of ABC, NBC and CBS, and that's it. We're long past the days of just CNN [on cable] because of Fox and MSNBC."

In addition to competition from other cable news outlets, the Internet lures viewers from one tube to another. Networks and stations have tried to stem that tide by creating Web sites of their own and directing television viewers to them as often as possible. That will continue as television and the Internet converge, Seib said.

"The generation that's now 14, 15 and 16 years old are increasingly used to getting information from the Web," he said. "Any news organization that thinks it can survive in the future will at least have to supplement [its on-air product] with a good Web product. And the more people use the Web, the more demanding they become."

The advent of the Internet has affected newspapers as well. Seib said it's evened the playing field between newspapers and TV because now newspapers can report breaking news online rather than having to wait for the paper to be printed the next morning.

But the Web also allows consumers to customize the news they're interested in. An overview of the day's events may disappear for some people as they get plugged into specific niches that interest them.

"They give you a menu, and you check off what you're interest in," Seib said. "If you're not interested in Africa, you won't get news from Africa. A couple million people die there? Well, it's not on your list, so you don't get it. There's a case to be made for professional responsibility among news organizations, but there's also a need for responsibility among news consumers as a basic function of citizenship."

The local picture

It's not just national news that's affected by the changing media landscape. Local stations will be forced to change, too. In many cases, they already have.

A decade ago, sports got much more time on local stations. With the rise of all-sports news spin-off channels from ESPN, the role of the sportscaster in local TV has changed and in some cases diminished.

"You still see sports, but with a more heavy emphasis on local and on community sports," said Joe Rovitto, who spent 13 years as WTAE-TV's news director. He's been a TV news consultant since 1993, working with KDKA for about the past five years. "Or you might see more emphasis on the entertainment side of the equation. Differentiation is really important, and it's important to recognize the changes in the environment. ... If it looks like another station has a corner on being the serious sports station, maybe I need to appeal to the more casual fan or the fan who doesn't care that much."

Though local stations try to impress viewers with whiz-bang graphics and technologically savvy weather instrumentation, those working in the field decry its low morale. There's even a Web site devoted to the decline of TV news -- co-created by former "NightTalk with John McIntire" producer Scott Jones -- whose name is unprintable in a family newspaper. (Let's just say the past tense of the f-word precedes television.com.)

In local TV news, younger people are being promoted to positions of authority faster than ever. Not all of them enjoy the bumpy ride. Todd Fleischhauer graduated from Northwestern University in 1995 and rose quickly in the TV news business, landing jobs at several stations in the country's Top 50 markets. He bailed out at age 27.

"Management in the television business is constrained by the fact that television is very much the business of journalism," he said. "As a result of that, budgets are constrained nowadays by the proliferation of cable channels, and they'll only get worse."

Rovitto acknowledged TV stations have to be more cost-conscious today than when he worked as a news director.

"I thought the budget constraints on me were pretty stringent, but that was a piece of cake compared to today," Rovitto said. "Any industry, as it matures, its profit margin is threatened."

The sheer number of TV stations has had a diluting effect with fewer people watching each channel.

"The revenue pie stays the same," Seib said, "but more [stations] are taking slices out of it."

"Any time a new player comes into the market, it has some effect," Rovitto said. "I don't think it's any one player, it's all of them together that creates diversion, distraction and choice that causes people to scatter."

In February 1996, KDKA, WPXI and WTAE attracted a combined 65 percent share of the viewing audience to the 6 p.m. half-hour of news. In February 2001, the three stations managed only 52 percent. The combined three-station share at 11 p.m. dropped from 73 percent to 60 percent.

Population declines and fewer numbers of homes using television during those time periods contributed to the drop, but can't account for all of it.

With more hours of news to fill than ever, Fleischhauer said ratings erosion is leading stations to do more newscasts with fewer resources.

"You end up with managers who want a massive quantity of work, and they don't care about the quality," he said. "They pander to demos. Story ideas are based on who will watch the news, so you tie in to 'Ally McBeal' and do a story that will appeal to 33-year-old women that may not necessarily be the news of the day. It's marketing disguised as journalism."

Fleischhauer now works for Tech Image, a high-tech public relations firm in suburban Chicago. Being a TV reporter was his dream, but he looked into the future and didn't like what he saw.

"Why be in a business that requires so many sacrifices and isn't really valued by society? It just wasn't worth it," he said. "I saw the business only getting worse the more fragmented the audience became. The Internet is one big factor. Most people I know in my generation don't watch TV news. Even being a former news person, I only catch the late evening news or five minutes of the morning news to see what the weather is. The reality is, the younger generation doesn't care about local news; they've realized what they're getting doesn't have much depth to it."

Whatever the future for local and national news broadcasts, there's one thing on which just about everyone agrees: Not every channel will continue in its current form.

"The real question is how many of us will survive," Brokaw said. "It's a question of how much of an appetite the country will have [for news] that can be economically justified."

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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