The most immediate question about the future of network news concerns the anchors. At each of the three networks, the man occupying the anchor chair is near retirement. The first expected to leave, Tom Brokaw of NBC, is scheduled to step down after the November elections.
What will happen when a new generation of anchors, people who rose during the current, and less influential, era of network news takes over? Will it lead to an innovative re-imagining of the nightly news? Or will the retirements of the big three anchors mean a loss in prestige for the newscasts with audiences, largely older Americans, more comfortable with familiar faces?
Change, of course, has long been part of the story of news, for the networks and for the dissemination of information in general. But how the networks respond to this next shift will depend in part on how much the corporations that own the networks – General Electric, Viacom and Disney – want to be in the news business.
There are probably three ways to look at network news. It can be seen as something clearly quantifiable, a product that justifies its existence in current return to the bottom line. One can also have a more complicated and also skeptical view, that news is a cost of doing business but a bit of a headache, an obligation that viewers have come to expect that is something of a financial drag. Or one may have a more optimistic view, that news is a service that adds genuine if unquantifiable value – personality, credibility, a sense of public responsibility – that in turn translates into viewer loyalty, stronger affiliates, better ratings and a brand exportable to new product lines like the Internet.
All three viewpoints are defensible. In the end, they come down to the values of the owners, their vision of their business. Yet each shapes how much one is willing to invest in news and thus the business model for the future. The options are many.
The networks could keep their news largely a mass medium product, but likely a smaller one. This means producing programs mainly for their core broadcast channel, as they do now. In this vision, network news would likely continue to lose audience. That would probably translate into further cuts in the news division and a diminution in quality, which might further chase audience away. This is the easiest model to imagine.
The other networks also could follow NBC’s example and create 24-hour news channels on cable to reach more audience and distribute use their resources more widely. Fox is approaching this in a smaller form with some network news programming in addition to its cable channel. ABC discussed the option with CNN before backing out. The concern is whether the cable universe is already too crowded.
The networks also could create even more paths for transmission, to more targeted and customized audiences. Imagine a newscast for MTV, another for Discovery, one for the History Channel, even in different languages. ABC and CBS executives have proffered plans along these lines, but were rebuffed by their companies. The news divisions also could go further into the business they offer local affiliates now, providing the news piecemeal, offering stories, newsbriefs and inserts for other channels to provide, a kind of supplemental television wire service for any outlet on television.
The biggest question for the networks may be what happens in the age of broadband, when the distinctions between cable and network television become less important. As the convergence of news technologies grows, there will almost certainly be more and deeper amounts of content available for those who want it. If people are getting television news on demand, on their phones and PDAs as well as their televisions, will the advantages cable has now – immediacy and convenience – mean as much as they do today? Or will the reporting and story-telling strengths of network news that viewers apparently still prefer on the occasions when network and cable compete head to head become more important?
Predictions about the future of news usually prove wrong. Some combination of options is likely. What probably matters more is whether the large corporations that control the networks now add more than incrementally to their current business model. If institutions that prevail in the future are entrepreneurial enough – with a vision, a willingness to invest and take risks – and the old networks die, a half-century of expertise, experience and credibility that are difficult to replace will go with them.