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Network TV – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

This was the year people in network TV news had anticipated for a generation.

What would happen, they wondered, when the three flagship evening news anchors left their chairs? Privately, at least one of those anchors worried that his network might stop airing a nightly newscast altogether.1 If that occurred, could what remained, mostly to produce morning shows and prime-time magazines, really be called a news organization?

And then it came, seemingly all at once and mostly without planning. Only Tom Brokaw at NBC managed to arrange a smooth transition to a successor. At CBS, scandal hastened the anchor Dan Rather’s departure, and at ABC cancer claimed Peter Jennings. “It is hard to imagine this place without Peter,” one veteran said weeks after Jennings died and months after he had been on the air.2

As it turned out, it was not the evening news that ABC decided to jettison, but Ted Koppel and the format of “Nightline.” Koppel and his longtime executive producer, Tom Bettag, left and went to Discovery on cable, arguing that commercial network television was no longer amenable to serious long-form broadcast journalism.

The underlying problems of network news continue without apparent interruption. The evening news lost more viewers in 2005. The audience for news continues to skew old, and advertisers remain preoccupied with the young.

Yet somewhere between anticipating the change in generations and its arrival, something new happened. The end of an era had already begun to feel like the start of the new one.

A year earlier, NBC News was emphasizing continuity with its new anchor — the announcer named every anchor the network had ever had before naming Brian Williams. But ABC in 2005 chose differently, opting for dual anchors and launching a 15-minute newscast that could be viewed on the Web three and a half hours before it aired on TV. At CBS News, one of the more significant hires in 2005 — even in a year when Sean McManus was named to replace Andrew Heyward as president of the division — may turn out to be not a new anchor, but an Internet billionaire entrepreneur: Larry Kramer, who took over CBS Digital, soon announced, “You’ll see us morph our news business into a Web-centric one.”3

In 2006, the popular press would no doubt focus on the choice CBS News makes for a new anchor. How would he or she compare with the anchors of old? Would the choice boost ratings?

Five years from now, however, we may look back and think the most important changes of the year in network news were about other things. Did the three news divisions really begin to innovate television news on the Internet? Did they start to see broadcasting as no longer their core delivery platform for news? To what extent did they start to see their TV channels as a way to drive traffic to the next generation of television news, online?

The answers did not come in 2005, nor were they likely to come in 2006. But the conversation looks to have finally begun.

Footnotes

1. Private conversation with Tom Rosenstiel, director, Project for Excellence in Journalism, principal author of the State of the News Media annual report.

2. Ibid.

3. Posted online by Andrew Nachison, the Media Center at the American Press Institute blog: Morph, June 22, 2005 , 4:53 p.m.