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Network

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Network news in the last two years has seen a generational transfer in anchors, news bosses at two of the three networks, more declines in audience and further cutbacks in staff.

Does it show? In 2007, did the programs change? Do they differ from each other? And how is network broadcast news, night and morning, similar or distinct from what one would see on cable or elsewhere?

This year, the Project offers its most comprehensive study to date of network news. For the first time, the Project studied every minute of the three commercial networks’ weekday nightly newscasts, as well the “hard news” half hour (the first 30 minutes) for the weekday morning shows. That represents some 27,600 minutes of news in 2007. That analysis builds on snapshot studies we have conducted in seven previous years.1

This larger examination, a “census” of every weekday rather than a snapshot or sample, finds:

The Culture of Storytelling Continues at Night

When CBS hired Katie Couric from NBC’s Today Show to become its evening anchor, the network had her fill more of the airtime than her predecessor, particularly by conducting interviews.

The show’s producers apparently wanted to have her play more of the role she had in morning news, where the anchor is also the reporter in most segments, often formatted around one-on-one interviews.

When she took over in September 2006, live interviews were a significant part of the new program, and analyst Andrew Tyndall noted that she was filling a larger part of her newscast than her rivals.

Even as changes began to be made in that initial plan, Couric’s role was significant. In February 2007, in writing about a new set series of interviews on CBS called the American Spirit, in which Couric talked with inspiring Americans, New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote that Ms. Couric is “hoping to enliven the newscast with some of her trademark early-morning pep and pizzazz — the ‘Today’-ification of the ‘CBS Evening News.’ ”

By the end of 2007, with new executives in charge of the newscast, that reliance on Couric had been scaled back. In fact, the opposite was true. Looking at 2007 in total, interviews made up roughly half as much of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric as they did on rival newscasts (178 minutes on CBS, 308 minutes on ABC and 371minutes on NBC).

That number might have been even lower, moreover, had CBS in early December not introduced its Primary Questions, a 10-part, favorably reviewed series of interviews with the presidential candidates. (Among the questions: “What one book, other than the Bible, would you bring the White House?”; “Besides your family, what are you most afraid of losing?”; “Who is the single most impressive person you’ve ever met?”— four Democrats said Nelson Mandela and four Republicans said Ronald Reagan.)

If Couric’s strength was once considered, as Washington Post critic Tom Shales suggested the night of her CBS debut, “chiefly her ability as an interviewer,” CBS apparently believes that this did not work for her on the evening news.

That does not mean that Couric’s role has shrunk across the board. According to accounting by analyst Andrew Tyndall, Couric spent as much time as one of her rivals, Charles Gibson, as a reporter herself in taped packages (273 minutes over the course of the year).2

But that means that more of her time on the air than her rivals is circumscribed by editing. Even many of her interviews are now tightly edited. Her Primary Questions segments were taped and edited, making them, in a sense, a hybrid of interview and package.

At least one of the signature skills that Couric was imagined to have brought as an asset to evening news is now considered something to limit.

Story Format Night News by Network
Percent of Newshole

ABC CBS NBC
% Minutes % Minutes % Minutes
Package 83 3864 85 4130 77 3824
Interview (live and taped) 7 308 4 178 8 371
Staff Live 2 85 1 46 5 229
Anchor read (Voice-over/Tell Story) 9 423 10 480 10 502
Unedited a/v

0

0

<1

1

0

0

Live (event or ext. live)

0

0

<1

3

0

0

Other (Banter, weather, don’t know)

0

0

<1

1

<1

12

Were there other notable distinctions among the networks?

One that stands out, in contrast with the trend at CBS, is that NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams has moved away somewhat from a reliance on correspondent packages. Just slightly over three-quarters of the time on the NBC was made up in 2007 by these taped stories (77%), the lowest of the three networks.

We found a similar pattern on NBC’s cable sibling, MSNBC. It stood out even among cable channels for nearly abandoning packaged storytelling entirely (just 10% of time studies and a heavier reliance on interviewing (70% of all time studied).

What would explain this? It is possible that the sharing of correspondents between the two channels has contributed to less time for NBC correspondents to put together taped packages. If Andrea Mitchell is doing stand-up reports for MSNBC during the day, and even anchoring some daytime programs, she may be available for a two-way interview with anchor Brian Williams, but not to put an edited piece together.

Does the format matter?

We find evidence that it does. In studies of network nightly news in previous years, one finding was that the stories on these newscasts had a thoroughness of reporting not found in cable or on morning news (2005 State of the News Media). Much of that stemmed, we concluded, from the continuing reliance on taped and edited correspondent packages as the heart of the nightly newscasts.

And whatever the small differences among the three nightly newscasts, that reliance on correspondent storytelling persisted in 2007. It did drop some, and the role of the anchor and the reliance on the live interview and reporter stand-up grew slightly.

But compared to anything else on television news, the nightly newscasts is where viewers can see stories that have been checked and edited, where the words from the correspondents have been carefully written rather than spoken from quick notes, where producers and correspondents have discussed the content of the stories, and the pictures and the words have been carefully matched in an editing room.

In 2007, correspondent packages made up 82% of the time on the nightly newscasts down slightly from 86% in our 2004 sample. The reliance on anchor conducted interviews and reporter live stand-ups grew to more than 8% of time (up from 2% in 2004).

Format of Different TV News Programs
Percent of Newshole

Nightly Network Cable Morning Network News Hour
Package 82% 30% 50% 36%
Interview 6 45 30 52
Staff Live 2 11 5 <1
Live (event or ext. live) <1 3 <1 <1
Anchor read (Voice-Over/tellstory) 10 10 9 12
Unedited a/v <1 <1 0 <1
Other (Banter, weather, don’t know) <1 1 5 0

These numbers still distinguish nightly news from morning, where interviews make up a third of the time, and even more so from cable, where the dependence on live programming that is harder to vet or correct makes up nearly 60% of time.

The interview and the use of the live stand-up, the latter a staple of local television news, are controversial in network nightly news. Time is more limited on these programs, which average 18.6 minutes of news each night. Live interviews tend to cede control to the interview subject, and live reporter stand-ups, if not handled judiciously, can simply repeat what is contained in a story.

Consider, for instance, the evening of October 2, a night picked at random. A view of NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams would have seen the program focus at the beginning with events of the day — first a news story about Blackwater Security’s president, Erik Prince, questioned in Congress, followed by a quick update of the third-quarter fundraising totals of the presidential candidates. Then came news about a court finding New York Knicks and its coach and president, Isiah Thomas, liable in a sexual harassment case, a quick tell story on housing sales figures and a story on the U.S. dollar.

A viewer tuning in to the closest thing to a newscast on NBC’s cable channel, MSNBC’s Olbermann program, would have seen a lead story on Democrats proposing a war surtax, a symbolic action that was not going to pass, followed by a follow-up interview about Democrats being unhappy with their party leadership. Then came a story and an interview about Blackwater’s ties to the Bush administration, calling the security firm “the armed wing” of the White House, followed by two stories about a controversy involving Rush Limbaugh.

None of the pieces on NBC Nightly news were live interviews. Three of the first six pieces on Olbermann were. Indeed, the three brief packages were setups to the longer interviews.

Differences among Nightly Newscasts in Topic Agenda

Beyond their differences in structure, the three commercial evening newscasts are in many ways even more similar in their news agenda — what they choose to cover and not cover each night.

Consider a few statistics.

The similarities are particularly true when looking at the two most popular programs, ABC and NBC.

The list of the topics on each of these two newscasts for the year does not deviate in order until topic No. 10. On NBC it is the environment, which ranked No. 15 on ABC. And that focus on the environment on NBC reflected in part a corporation-wide decision at General Electric to focus attention on global warming and energy use late in the year. All NBC newscasts devoted special time that week. That weeklong special also coincided with NBC retaking the lead in ratings over ABC.

There are slightly more difference with CBS’ newscast, which is last in ratings.

CBS devoted more time in 2007 to health topics and lifestyle topics (18% of its time) than did either ABC (15%) or NBC (14%).

But broadcast by broadcast, divided over 261 weekday nights (ABC evening was preempted on 3 nights, and CBS evening was preempted on 2 nights), these small percentage differences might be scarcely noticeable. (The difference in between NBC and CBS coverage of non-U.S. foreign events, for example, amounts to just 36 seconds difference a night.)

Were there distinctions in how different networks led their newscasts? Some. NBC led more often with the debate over Iraq policy, but less often with events on the ground in Iraq. ABC was more likely to lead with anti-terrorism issues at home and similar efforts abroad than the others.) But overall, those differences also paled in relation to similarities.

A more meaningful difference among the networks might be the overall time devoted to delivering the news. Of the 30 minutes these programs air, subtract commercials, and “teases” of forthcoming stories and the programs are not equal in size. ABC had 18.1 minutes of news, CBS had 18.7 and NBC had the longest newscast, 18.9 minutes (ABC evening was preempted on 3 nights, and CBS evening was preempted on 2 nights).

This also reflects another change, one we have noted in the past. The proverbial 22 minutes of news in a 30-minute newscast, in other words, has shrunk to an average of 18.6 minutes.3

This declining newshole has been documented in these reports before using data from ADT Research and analyst Andrew Tyndall. (State of the Media 2005)

Differences among Nightly Newcasts by Topic
Percent of Newshole

ABC CBS NBC
Governemnt 5% 5% 5%
Elections/Politics 8 9 7
Crime 6 6 5
Economics/Business 8 6 7
Environment 2 3 4
Health/Medicine 8 10 8
Science/Technology 2 3 1
Immigration 1 1 2
Other Domestic Affairs* 15 15 15
Disasters/Accidents 7 7 7
Celebrity/Entertainment 1 1 1
Lifestyle/Sports 10 10 8
Miscellaneous & Media 3 3 4
U.S. Foreign Affairs 15 15 16
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 8 7 9
Total Minutes 4,680 4,837 4,938

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.
Note: * Other Domestic Affairs includes such things as development, transportation, education, religion, abortion, gun control, welfare, poverty, social security, labor, aging, court/legal system, race and gender issues, etc.

Other domestic affairs includes such issues as development, transportation, education, religion, court/legal system, defense/military (domestic), race/gender/gay issues, poverty, social security, etc.

Top 5 Nightly News Stories
2007, by Network
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The Network News Agenda Over Time

How has the news agenda on the nightly news changed?

Over the years, the Project has traced an arc in the content of the nightly newscasts. The definition of news shifted from a more traditional diet of what some used to call “hard” news in the 1970s and 1980s toward a clear softening of the agenda in the 1990s. For the decade of the 1990s, both Andrew Tyndall and Robert Lichter’s research found that crime, once a largely local story, was the biggest topic on nightly news in the decade, although the crime rate was declining. That raised questions about “tabloidization” in network television. That coincided with the end of the Cold War, and the decline in foreign coverage.

After 9/11, there was a brief but clear turn in the news agenda of nightly news toward foreign affairs again, with anti-terrorism efforts as a clear focus.

What is the agenda now?

The nightly newscasts in 2007 devoted more time to a range of domestic issues, especially health and medicine coverage, than in 2004.4 (The number for a host of issues at home rose to 24% of the stories, up from 21% in 2004 and the mid-teens for several years before that.) The newscasts all also devoted 75% more to disasters and accidents than three years earlier, a topic that has ebbed and flowed over the years. All told, they devoted 7% of disaster and accident stories up from 4% in 2004.

Coverage of government, meanwhile, shrank markedly, as it did on other media sectors, to just 5% of the stories on the nightly newscasts, down from 27% in 2004. That number is not unprecedented, but it matches the lowest we have seen in prior snapshots of network news topics.

To some extent, the time that might have been devoted to government activities was swallowed up by attention focused on the Iraq policy debate and the campaign for president. But that does not explain the entire decline. The uptick in coverage of crime (to 6% up from 2%), accidents and such domestic issues as health and medicine also account for part of it.

Does this suggest some lightening or shifting of the news agenda on nightly news, in particular toward medical coverage that is particularly attuned to an older audience that watches nightly news, or toward lifestyle stories about diet and other news you can use?

That judgment is premature. Numbers can move up and down in different years. But certainly features that were once branded staples of the network news, such as those that focused on government waste (NBC’s Fleecing of America), have given way to frequent special series on health.

Commercial Nightly News Topics, Over Time
Percent of All Stories

1977 1987 1997 June ’01 Oct. ’01 2002 2003 2004 2007
Governemnt 37% 32% 18% 5% 7% 5% 16% 27% 5%
Foreign Affairs/Military* 22 20 18 23 39 37 28 15 25
Elections 9 7
Domestic Affairs# 8 7 5 18 34 12 16 21 24
Crime 8 7 13 12 4 12 6 2 6
Business/Economics 6 11 7 14 5 11 12 8 10
Celebrity/Enter. 2 3 8 5 0 2 2 2 1
Lifestyle/Sports 4 11 14 13 1 17 6 5 8
Science and Technology 4 5 6 4 11 2 2 3 2
Accidents and Disasters 9 5 10 4 0 3 10 4 7
Other+ N.A. N.A. N.A. 3 0 N.A. 2 4 5

Totals may not equal100 due to rounding.
Note: *Foreign Affairs in 2007 includes much of Iraq policy debate, U.S. foreign diplomacy and non-U.S. involved foreign events.
#Domestic affairs includes topics such as health and immigration that in other charts are broken out seperately. +Other in 2007 includes media

Nightly News vs. Other Media

Whatever changes may have occurred in the topics in 2007, the three commercial nightly news programs still feature the most traditional hard-news-oriented agenda on commercial television, and in some way the broadest. While cable news has moved toward commentary, with a focus on a narrower range of topics often of a controversial nature, with a dose of tabloid crime and scandal mixed in, the nightly newscasts cover a wider range of topics.

In 2007, one was twice as likely to see coverage of events from abroad that did not involve the U.S. on nightly network news, for instance, than on the several hours a day of cable studied in our sample. There was about half the percentage of crime coverage on nightly news as on cable (6% vs. 13%), more than twice the percentage of economic/business coverage (7% vs. 3%), about a fifth of the celebrity and entertainment coverage (1% vs. 5%).

Topics on Different Media
Percent of newshole

Network Evening

Cable

Online

Newspapers

Government 5% 7% 6% 6%
Elections/Politics 8 17 8 11
Crime 6 13 7 4
Economics/Business 7 3 5 12
Environment 3 1 1 2
Health/medicine 8 2 2 7
Science/Technology 2 <1 1 2
Immigration 1 5 1 3
Other Domestic Affairs 15 10 7 13
Disasters/Accidents 7 6 6 2
Celebrity/Entertainment 1 5 1 <1
Lifestyle & Sports 9 3 4 7
Miscellaneous & Media 3 6 4 2
U.S. Foreign Affairs 15 18 22 15
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 8 4 25 13

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

The distinctions with mornings are somewhat less pronounced but similar (see Morning News for a more detailed comparison).

Morning Shows

Morning network television programs are markedly different than their evening brethren, so much so that the time slot makes much more difference in determining what viewers see than the network they choose.

For these comparisons, we examine the first half hour of morning news, the “harder news” portion of the programs, the portion most like a “news” program. We examined every weekday of morning news and every minute of evening network news for the year (13,212 minutes for morning network, and 14,455 minutes of evening network).

In 2007, morning programs devoted significantly more of their time than evening news to the presidential campaign (13% vs. 8%). Only cable news and talk radio devoted more of their time to the campaign. Often this coverage had a decidedly different flavor than one might see at night.

Top 5 Stories on Network Morning vs. Network Evening News
2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

Take, for instance, the CBS’ Early Show’s Candidates Unplugged, series. The one on December 5 was an interview with a Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, in which the candidate talked about liking iPods (he owns two), the Rolling Stones and the rocker John Mellencamp. On the CBS Evening News that night, by contrast, the network reported on Hillary Clinton firing a staffer who had sent attack e-mails against her opponent for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, and about a new attack ad by another Republican candidate, Rudolph Giuliani, and Couric did one of her Primary Questions, segments, asking the candidates about their biggest mistakes.

But morning news also devoted more of its time to crime, disasters and celebrity, key ingredients in a more emotional, or what some critics would call a more tabloid news, agenda than nightly news. The morning shows devoted more of their time to crime (10% vs. 6%), celebrity and entertainment (4% vs. 1%) and more to accidents and disasters (11% vs. 7%). Collectively, about a quarter of the first half-hour of morning news programs was devoted to these three, 77% more than on the nightly newscasts. The crime and disaster segments tended to focus on the feelings of the families and victims.

Consider how evening and morning news covered a tornado in Alabama on March 1, 2007. The NBC Nightly News did three stories, a package about the tornado’s destruction, a live report about current conditions in the town, Enterprise, and another live report about meteorologists tracking tornadoes.

The next morning, the Today Show covered the same story by running an interview with two students who were in the school when the tornado hit.

“First of all we are all very happy you are both all right, especially in the wake of what we’ve seen, this destruction,” Matt Lauer began. “Marissa, let me start with you. I think you were in the science hall when this tornado struck. Were you with some other students? Did you hear some sirens? What kind of warning did you get?” And then he asked, “Can you describe, Marissa, what it was like when the twister actually hit the school?”5

On October 1, as an example, ABC’s Good Morning America devoted seven minutes in its lead half-hour to the story of a police search for man who taped himself molesting a three-year-old girl. The program covered the story first as a package and then by interviewing the suspect’s ex-girlfriend, who, anchor Chris Cuomo said, “is now struggling to reconcile the images on that tape with the man she thought she knew.” The police search was never covered as a story on the network’s evening news program.

Topics in the News: Commercial Network Morning vs. Evening News
2007, Percent of newshole

Commercial Morning Commercial Nightly
Government 5% 5%
Economics/Politics 14 8
Crime 10 6
Economics/Business 6 7
Environment 1 3
Health/Medicine 3 8
Science/Technology 1 2
Immigration 1 1
Other Domestic Affars 7 15
Disasters/Accidents 11 7
Celebrity/Entertainment 4 1
Lifestyle/Sports 7 9
Miscellaneous & Media 10 3
U.S. Foreign Affairs 13 15
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 8 8

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.

Another comparison also helps explain the difference in the feel of the programs. In total, 11% of the morning shows’ first half-hour was devoted to the war in Iraq over all, versus roughly 16% on nightly news.

Differences by Network

Were there measurable differences in the news agendas of the three network morning shows in 2007?

Our analysis suggests the answer is a qualified yes, and again it was the CBS network that stood out. CBS’ Early Show offers viewers a different, and some might say lighter, selection of news in the first half hour.

More of the CBS program during the time studied was devoted to the trio of celebrity, crime and disasters news than on the other networks. Fully 31% of the hours studied of the Early Show (1,267 minutes) were devoted to these subjects, versus 22% on GMA (954 minutes) and 22% on Today (1,013 minutes).

The Early Show also devoted less of its time in the hours studied to more hard news staples such as government and politics. Fully 14% of its time (or 571 minutes) was devoted to those two general topics, compared with 18% on ABC (802 minutes). NBC’s Today show (22%) was the most focused on government and politics (1,035 minutes).

Those numbers highlight another difference in choice that viewers might find among the three morning programs. In general, at least in the first half-hour, NBC’s Today show probably offered the most traditional hard-news-oriented agenda of the three, although it would be a stretch to say it was broad-based. Even on Today, three topics — U.S. foreign policy (mostly the war in Iraq), politics (mostly the election) and accidents/disasters — made up 41% of the airtime studied.

Topics in the News: Commercial Morning Network News
2007, Percent of Newshole

GMA Early Show Today
Government 4% 4% 5%
Elections/Politics 14 10 17
Crime 8 12 9
Economics/Business 6 5 7
Environment 1 1 1
Health/Medicine 5 2 3
Science/Technology 2 1 1
Immigration 1 1 <1
Other Domestic Affairs 8 6 7
Disasters/Accident 10 12 10
Celebrity/Entertainment 3 8 3
Lifestyle/Sports 6 8 6
Miscellaneous & Media 11 9 9
U.S. Foreign Policy 13 12 15
Foreign (non-U.S.) 7 9 8

Totals my not equal 100 due to rounding.

But viewers might not have entirely noticed, at least not if they were taking their cue from the lead stories each morning. Here, ABC’s Good Morning America tended to look a little more traditional.

GMA tended toward leading with foreign and economic news, especially the war, more than its rivals. Of the big stories of the year, the war, foreign events and the economy were the lead story nearly a quarter of the time on GMA (22%), substantially higher than the 13% on Today, and somewhat higher than 17% on the CBS Early Show. Thus even though Today was somewhat more oriented to hard news in the hours studied, it often led with other topics, and moved to those traditional news topics next.

Top 5 Stories on Network Morning Shows
2007, by Network
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The other difference is in structure. In the mornings, GMA tends to rely more on taped packages and less on interviews, at least in the first half hour of the newscast. NBC’s Today Show, in keeping with what we found in nightly and on cable, leans most heavily on live. Here, CBS fell in the middle.

Story Format Network Morning Shows
Percent of newshole

GMA

Today

CBS Early

Package

54%

46%

51%

Interview

24

32

35

Staff Live

5

7

3

Live (Event or Ext. Live)

0

<1

<1

Anchor read (Voice-over/Tell Story)

11

10

6

Other (Banter, Weather,don’t knokw)

5

5

4