Old bulls fend off newfangled newscasts

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Why?

Look at the ascendancy of Charles Gibson, whom ABC News President David Westin had considered to replace Mr. Jennings before eventually going with the ill-starred Woodruff-Vargas duo. (Miss Vargas resigned in May 2006 citing pregnancy and maternity leave.)

Mr. Gibson had trailed Mr. Williams until this past January; since then his ratings have climbed steadily. Nielsen Media Research has “World News With Charles Gibson,” as the program is now known, leading with an average of 8 million viewers nightly, compared to 7.3 million for Mr. Williams and a distant 6.1 million for Miss Couric.

Mr. Williams, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Schieffer. Hmm. Are you noticing the cross-network pattern of success, too?

It doesn’t take tremendous powers of induction to figure out this has something to do with the aging — and shrinking — demographic that tunes into the evening news.

The average viewer of such broadcasts is 60 years old, according to John Doolittle, associate professor at American University’s School of Communication.

For whatever reason, these folks prefer their evening news anchors to be male and alone.

“Women on network news feature programs like ‘60 Minutes’ do fine,” Mr. Doolittle points out. “Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley come to mind. But on their own, they seem to get a critical eye.”

The news isn’t all bad for the news, so to speak. News programming is cheap to produce, Mr. Doolittle says, and advertisers are still keen on reaching viewers, even as their number dwindles.

It’s possible, then, that the networks acted too soon by inaugurating the Katie Couric era. They might have milked the old model a bit longer, hoping all the while that a younger public will one day reconnect with mainstream television journalism.

Less optimistically, it may be the case that holding on to the old model was their only real choice — because that young public never will arrive.

Mr. Doolittle says it’s an open question whether the network nightly news format will survive at all. There’s the continual onslaught of 24-hour cable news — which, combined with increasingly long work commutes gobbling up evening hours, may render the traditional nightly news’ time slot obsolete.

And then there’s competition from the Internet, which has spawned TV outlets of its own, not to mention the capability of delivering news to cell phones, BlackBerrys and other hand-held devices.

Network news could learn a thing or two from its online rivals.

Blogs and so-called “wikis” (Web sites that allow users to generate and edit content) suggest that what the media-savvy public wants most is to have say in what’s news — to, in some sense, participate in as well as consume journalism.

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