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Network News Chiefs Offer Rosy Scenarios for the Future of TV Ratings

Denial was the order of the day at a meeting of news chiefs from network TV.

Remember that catchy pop tune from twenty years ago, courtesy of Timbuk 3? You know, the one with the catchy chorus: "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades?"

The lyrics got stuck in my head recently at an unlikely venue: the normally staid Council on Foreign Relations and its 60th anniversary celebration of the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellowship. The fellowship, established in 1949 but renamed in 1965 in honor of the late, great CBS News icon, offers journalists who cover international affairs an opportunity "to engage in sustained analysis and writing, free from the daily pressures that characterize journalistic life." The program's goal is to promote the quality of responsible and discerning journalism that exemplified Murrow's work.

Surprisingly, there was little mention of Murrow--but much of the recently late and also great CBS News icon Walter Cronkite - at a session devoted to "Conversation with Network News Presidents: Meeting Industry Challenges." Ably moderated by New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, the event featured four white men in dark suits - three broadcast news chiefs - NBC News President Stephen A. Capus, ABC News President David Westin, Sean McManus, President, CBS News and Sports, and, for good measure, cable news honcho Jonathan Klein, once a top CBS News executive and now president of CNN/U.S.

Given their lack of diversity, it was perhaps unsurprising that all four newsmen expressed the unitary thought that mainstream news operations already are, as the session title phrased it, "meeting industry challenges" and, in general, are performing admirably. Denial was the order of the day. If ratings are down at the broadcast nets, they are still delivering "trusted news" to twenty five million viewers nightly. If international bureaus are being shuttered, the new "digital journalists" and "vjs" that have replaced them are more than picking up the slack. If there is less coverage of international news than ever, that's because these things move in cycles... and we can't program the news by a quota system... and so on, ad infinitum , and frankly ad nauseum ! Even Auletta, a gracious and moderate moderator, but one still prone to asking tough questions, appeared at times bemused at best by the responses - or should I say lack thereof.

Thus, they told the assembly, network news isn't dying - and it will never go away.

Content is king and quality rules, they said - so if there is less international news, ("Who really knows?" they demanded. "How do you measure?" they wanted to know...) that's simply because there is so much excellent reporting to choose from. Anyway, and after all, less is more. (Great and jocular reference was made and attention paid to the old ABC News Paris bureau, complete with wine steward, as an example of how much smarter the nets are in allocating their "news budget" these days!) No, said the presidents, the naysayers and critics (aka the people formerly known as their audience) are dead wrong - the cutbacks and layoffs and buyouts and closed bureaus and diminished resources only mean the network news divisions are being run more efficiently than ever, and they are more important than ever - and anyone who dares suggest otherwise is, well, misinformed at best...

And - oh yes - the future's so bright, they have to wear shades!

At one point CBS News head McManus compared the network news divisions to American automakers such as General Motors, saying that if the nets, like Detroit automakers, failed to respond to their customers' needs and demands - and to a rapidly changing world - they too would soon be driven to the edge of bankruptcy, but without the possibility of a federal bailout. The analogy was apt - except for the fact that, judging by their defensive postures at the CFR and ostrich-like responses to their customers and the rapidly changing world out there, each steadfastly remains convinced that continuing to manufacture the news equivalent of a Hummer every day is a path to profitability as well as serving the public interest.

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