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


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.

Yes, the future's so bright, they have to wear shades.

Of the three broadcast news heads, ABC's David Westin stood out most for his obstinate refusal to bend in the face of reality. Take the basic question of whether or not it still makes any sense (if in fact it ever did) to pay someone 10-15 million dollars annually to read the news reader - or be an "anchor," as they like to call it. Asked by Auletta what he would do if Katie Couric offered to give back some of her salary to be used to bolster news resources, McManus said he'd accept the offer in a heartbeat. But Westin shocked me by revealing for the first time that he had actually refused a similar offer made to him some years back by an unnamed former ABC News bigwig! (Ted Koppel, perhaps?) Pressed by yours truly during the Q and A that followed the discussion, Westin, who just hired a new multi-million dollar "anchor" last week, responded petulantly by saying the question itself was uninformed and betrayed a lack of understanding of how network news works at a basic level.

That may well be true - my own experience as a network news employee was admittedly limited and lowly, although as an independent producer I was being subsequently and variously involved everywhere from NBC (where our pilot series on innocent people in prison was bumped for "all Monica Lewinsky, all the time") to ABC (where a piece commissioned by the nightly news was first commissioned, then killed, then aired after I threatened to sue for the money I had been promised initially) all the way to Fox (where the fax machine for a newsmagazine literally emptied into a waste basket.) But I digress!

Perhaps the words of President Barack Obama, delivered at the memorial for Walter Cronkite that preceded the Murrow anniversary by just a day, might hold more weight for Westin? Here's what this president had to say about network news:

"We also remember and celebrate the journalism that Walter practiced — a standard of honesty and integrity and responsibility to which so many of you have committed your careers. It’s a standard that’s a little bit harder to find today. We know that this is a difficult time for journalism. Even as appetites for news and information grow, newsrooms are closing. Despite the big stories of our era, serious journalists find themselves all too often without a beat. Just as the news cycle has shrunk, so has the bottom line.

And too often, we fill that void with instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter disdained, rather than the hard news and investigative journalism he championed. 'What happened today?' is replaced with 'Who won today?' The public debate cheapens. The public trust falters. We fail to understand our world or one another as well as we should -- and that has real consequences in our own lives and in the life of our nation. We seem stuck with a choice between what cuts to our bottom line and what harms us as a society. Which price is higher to pay? Which cost is harder to bear?"

Unlike the four on the stage at the Murrow anniversary, here is one president who actually gets it, and isn't afraid to tell it as it is - or as it could be. So when Obama tells us the future of journalism (at least — if not network news itself) could be bright, it doesn't just come across as an annoying reminder of some treacly pop confection from twenty years ago. Instead, you actually believe not only in him, but in the truth and possibility of what he is saying:

"Our American story continues. It needs to be told. And if we choose to live up to Walter’s example, if we realize that the kind of journalism he embodied will not simply rekindle itself as part of a natural cycle, but will come alive only if we stand up and demand it and resolve to value it once again, then I’m convinced that the choice between profit and progress is a false one — and that the golden days of journalism still lie ahead."

The golden days of journalism? Count me in! Stand up! Demand it! Resolve to value it once again! Remember - the future's so bright...

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