Two important stories — this week’s resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and last week’s storm in the Northeast — underline the growing irrelevance of the traditional network evening-news programs.
Simply put, one of the problems is timing. The pope’s announcement of his resignation occurred nearly 11 hours before the evening broadcasts on Monday, meaning almost everyone already knew about the story, and the Northeast storm hadn’t happened by airtime Friday.
During the past week, I watched how “The CBS Evening News” handled these and other stories.
Since Scott Pelley replaced Katie Couric, whose disastrous five-year run as anchor ended in May 2011, the program, while still No. 3 in the ratings behind NBC and ABC, seems to have reversed a downward spiral that led to its lowest ratings in 20 years.
The pope’s resignation — the first in nearly 600 years — created other difficulties. How can an evening news program advance a story so long after the announcement?
As a former ABC correspondent and bureau chief in Rome, I found the reporting on CBS and other outlets became the predictable bit of history, reaction and pure speculation. For example, the constant babble about the “papabili” — the possible candidates for pope — has begun, including banter about Italians, a Canadian, two Africans and others. For some reason, CBS put Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York in the running, which will never happen. Simply put, the last three popes were not among those speculated about by the media to become the leader of the Catholic Church.
I also found the Northeast storm coverage tough to take. David Bernard’s weather set looked like most local news programming, with color-coded maps and swirling images. The diagrams and prognostications have no place on a national program. On Friday, CBS had reporters in Boston and New York reporting on what could happen. That’s the problem with stories yet to occur. CBS and others need to find other ways to tell the weather stories, such as working with the emergency crews or the snowplow operations and what they do. Spend the day with those on the front lines. CBS briefly mentioned the positive effect for long-suffering winter resorts. I would have done a separate story.
During a week of viewing the CBS broadcast, however, I found some interesting stories, with reporters hitting the streets — unlike what I found last week at ABC’s “World News” — to provide stories I had not heard about.
• Elizabeth Palmer profiled library curator Abdul Kader Haidara in Timbuktu, Mali, and how he and others avoided the destruction by Islamic extremists of more than 30,000 manuscripts dating back to the 12th century. (Click here to view the segment.)
• David Martin provided several insightful reports, including one on how automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, set to start March 1 have already affected the Department of Defense. The first broadcast focused on the postponement of the deployment of the USS Harry Truman, an aircraft carrier being sent to the Persian Gulf. The second report centered on the expanding use of drones and the advances in the technology.
The most difficult issue facing CBS, as well as the other network evening news programs, is whether such broadcasts can reinvent themselves to become more relevant in a 24/7 news cycle.
William Lord, the former executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “Nightline,” has some suggestions. “Do fewer reporter-based stories so that the five or six that do air can have greater depth, [with] ‘Nightline’-type interviews for several of them,” he told me. “Otherwise, over time [the programs will face] the same fate as the mom-and-pop stores.”
Given the interesting stories I noticed on CBS, I would agree. The best option would be to give a short summary of the news at the beginning of the broadcast rather than full stories almost everyone has already heard about and provide more in-depth coverage on other reports. But that’s unlikely to happen, since taking such chances is not what television news operations have done recently.
Christopher Harper is a professor of journalism at Temple University. He worked for The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20” for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Andrew P. Napolitano
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