— CNN Probably OK, Fox in Good Shape
— But There’ll Always Be Local TV News
Both parts of TV news are changing hard and fast.
The TV part …
And the news part.
You don’t even need a TV anymore to watch TV news as it has spread to Internet, phone and hand-held device delivery.
The news on it is lessened, fragmented and not nearly as powerful as before.
“It’s reminiscent of the ’50s classic sci-fi film ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man,’ ” says Tom Madden, founder and chairman of TransMedia Group.
“Today it’s The Incredible Shrinking once-upon-a-time Oligopoly called Network News. Each news operation shares a smaller and smaller piece of the economic pie, hence news operations will generally shrink and morph into fresh, more practical online formats. Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds, as today serious news consumers can find information from an ever widening array of sources and viewpoints and it’s all readily available 24/7 and as close by as our i-Pods and maybe eventually from chips in their brains.”
Madden exemplifies the change from the old ways of TV news to the new ways. He used to be assistant to legendary NBC president Fred Silverman and director of PR at ABC. Now he has left the networks for the Internet, having started a humorous shopping site http://www.shoplaughing.com … which he calls “where ‘American Idol’ meets QVC and for the first time brings entertainment to the genre, which until now hasn’t changed for many years.”
Here’s how he and other experts view the future of TV news and what might change some more for the networks, CNN, Fox and local stations.
Despite gloom-and-doom scenarios, the once-dominant CBS, NBC and ABC will always be around … but how big and in what form?
“The three networks still represent the largest combined early evening numbers, and remain way ahead of non-network competitive audiences,” says Phil Beuth, president of ABC-TV’s entertainment division for eight years, during which he ran the “Good Morning America” program.
“For advertisers, they still represent mass audience, and national coverage. The networks have huge investments in their news operations, and the evening news is their major golden goose … they are never likely to stop those broadcasts, because they are the heavies which pay the bills.”
Paul Conti, an assistant professor of communications at the College of Saint Rose and former news director at NBC affiliate WNYT-TV, says the networks “still have audiences, just not as large as they used to have. The problem is paying for what they do. The size of the audience that remains is becoming too small to keep the ad rates high enough to pay for the cost of the newscasts.”
Judy Muller used to be a correspondent for ABC News and CBS News … now she’s an associate professor of communication and journalism at the University of Southern California.
“Your phrase ‘once-dominant’ says it all,” she says. “The commercial networks have been scrambling to hold onto audience for many years now, and since their business model has basically been one of selling advertising based on ratings (which are declining every year), they are in a radical period of adjustment. Most networks have closed all but one or two foreign bureaus … and Americans will be the poorer for not knowing more about what’s happening around the world. That said, the three major network news programs still command an audience in the millions … and that’s nothing to sneeze at. I think they will survive, but they will never regain their dominant position in the media world.”
For Bill Hayes, the decline for the networks is nothing new … “it started a long time ago.” Hayes has been in the business a long time himself as president of the Broadcast Technology Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers … the world’s largest technical professional association … and director of engineering and technology at Iowa Public Television.
He tells us, “In 1992 author Ken Auletta published his book, ‘Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way,’ which documented the new technology challenges facing broadcasting in 1985 which were cable and the explosion of VCRs. All of the networks had just changed hands and cost containment seemed to be the driving force, sometimes at the expense of quality and integrity. Once again, the broadcast networks are facing new technological challenges from the Internet, wireless services and even more sources of content.”
Is it good or bad for America to lose, or see withering, a central source of news considered by most to be competent, reliable and trustworthy? “It really depends on the people of America,” is how Hayes answers this one.
“One of the strengths of the original network news operations was their focus on journalistic integrity and accuracy. Gathering the facts and reporting the news was paramount. Many people in the news industry have seen that change as the push is to be the first on the air with the exclusive story. The problem comes when people have a multitude of sources and they cannot differentiate between them. The Internet is the classic example of an essentially uncontrolled medium. How many instances of misinformation being taken as fact are there? If the end users don’t differentiate between the fact and the fantasy, it certainly could be bad.”
Lisa Weaver, former CNN International correspondent and now a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa, believes the Big Three “will move more into magazine style or long form television journalism … or infotainment. News coverage may be outsourced to entities so that the nets are relieved of that cost and investment. For instance, there have been talks for years of CBS News striking a deal with CNN to provide some sort of news coverage package for CBS air.”
Tom Madden flatly says it will happen: “CNN will merge with CBS, which will produce efficiencies and save the 24-news cycle from extinction. Television network news in a traditional sense is an endangered species. And the only way to survive is to marry and remain faithful to your principles.”
Prof. Conti thinks along the same lines: “Synergies could be helpful, like the ones NBC is using between NBC News and its various cable components (MSNBC, CNBC and The Weather Channel).”
Besides the regular evening newscasts, special efforts like “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours” have long been mainstays.
“Both of those shows have demonstrated an ability to keep a healthy audience through compelling narrative technique and expert investigative reporting, despite the fact that so many of the reporters are older than 55,” says Prof. Muller. “Some are in their 80s! This is a huge testament to the public’s hunger for substantive journalism and should encourage broadcasters to continue this tradition. But this kind of journalism is expensive, so we may see more collaboration in the future. Even ’60 Minutes’ has joined forces on a few stories with the investigative website ProPublica.com … which is funded by philanthropy.”
Not so fast, says Prof. Conti. “Sometimes I ask about stories that I’ve seen on ’60 Minutes’ or ‘Dateline’ in class. No student ever watches those programs. I doubt they ever will. They don’t seem to want the depth on an issue. They are headline oriented and think 140 characters of a story are quite enough. Long term, the prospects for those kinds of magazine shows are not all that robust.”
What’s Next For CNN, FOX?
He explains: “I have little use for CNN, which might be a good second source for special events like elections, but for regular wide range news coverage, I think they are very weak … just tune in on a Saturday, and see how much they repeat all day long. They do not devote much manpower to everyday events, or compilations of the previous week. Fox is worse, but has a following so politically motivated, I wonder if they would recognize the truth.”
Prof. Muller notes that CNN “has been struggling lately against its competitors on cable … MSNBC and Fox … and that’s primarily because the audiences have been prone to tune into shows that support their biases (Fox for conservatives, MSNBC for liberals). CNN always shines during major breaking news stories because they cover the story (i.e. Haiti) like a blanket, 24-7. So I believe CNN will hold its loyal audience, as well as those who turn to it at times of national disaster, etc.”
Prof. Weaver says discussing CNN’s future depends “on whether you’re talking about CNN domestic or CNN International. CNN domestic will likely continue to creep toward ‘edge’ and television personalities, in order to keep up with the brash polarization common to most cable news services. CNNI’s future is more secure in that it doesn’t have to constantly keep up with anything other than BBC World, which is the only other service that really competes at that level. A lot of the developing world still watches television as opposed to i-phones.”
Prof. Conti brings up a complicating factor few outside the industry are aware of … “CNN is reliant upon local TV stations across the country for material. CNN Newsource is a service that many of the local stations use. It is an interesting business model. Local stations pay a fee and run barter ads. In exchange they get access to most CNN materials, including sports highlights. The local stations also supply material to CNN Newsource upon request. Sometimes all of the local stations in a given market subscribe to it.
“If CNN and one of the broadcast TV network news operations form a business relationship, it could change things for Newsource and therefore CNN. Currently, if a local station gives material to Newsource, it can require that competing local stations in the same market will not be able to use it. That mechanism of protection is already in place. I wonder how interested local stations would be in feeding material to Newsource if it ended up on one of the competition’s broadcast network newscasts?”
He also makes this point: “CNN Headline News answers the need for most cable viewers interested in the CNN brand. It is difficult to imagine a business scenario where both will be viable in the future.”
As for Fox, our respondents see no viability problem.
Madden: “Fox News will continue to dominate cable news as it has successfully blended information and entertainment and it consistently delivers what it knows so well its audience wants.”
Conti: “Fox News started the opinion oriented cable news model. MSNBC uses it now, too. For the present, I think both of those cable news networks continue, successfully, as is.”
Muller: “Fox has carved out a niche as the cable network to turn to if you want your conservative values bolstered (I am talking here about the talk shows, not the straight-ahead news reporting, which is often quite balanced and professional). In financial terms, I would think Fox is in a very good situation.”
Weaver: Fox “appeals to the sort of anti-intellectual populism that is at a particular high right now in the United States. Looking at Fox and conservative talk radio and certain blogs together as a piece, it makes sense to me that there will be a future for Fox. And in fact even more so, in that Fox doesn’t really have to shoulder the costs of serious international news coverage because they don’t do very much of it.”
Local News Still Rules
With the diminishing of print media in many urban areas, Tom Madden believes local TV “is fast replacing the local newspaper. In news, the local angle has always ruled. Five hundred deaths far away are not equal to one nearby. It’s human nature. We are localites. That’s not to say local news won’t expand and pamper its audience interactively on the Internet. But it’s here to stay for a long while, only perhaps relying more and more on outside sources for content, like PR firms.”
Prof. Weaver: “I think local TV is actually quite relevant for a lot of people, and it isn’t going anywhere. It does struggle with cutbacks in the newsroom and fewer people doing more things. Local TV is often a part of local media groups … pooling video, text, etc. from local TV stations and newspapers (or online news websites) into one local ‘mega’ news company. This type of convergence is one way to deal with newsgathering with fewer people, as well as attract advertisers.”
Prof. Muller: “What IS changing is the practice of paying enormous salaries to anchors at major stations around the country. With the audience more fragmented than ever, with people getting more and more news from the Internet, local stations are beginning to see that their websites are ultimately more important than their evening newscasts … and you don’t need expensive anchors for that.”
And speaking of TV station websites … that’s a sore point with Prof. Conti. He would like to see TV stations pair with a newspaper to create a much more powerful, comprehensive site.
“Newspapers possess far more editorial resources than local TV stations,” he says.
“Why they haven’t marshaled that into more multi-media on the web is lost on me. I think publishers believe that they are moving in that direction, but most of them are still experimenting. The enterprises that combine the depth of print and the emotional connection of video under their brand are the ones that will survive and thrive. Sooner rather than later, because I still do not believe changes are happening quickly enough to save most of those businesses.
“Local TV news websites are largely repurposed content from the news programs. In fact, in most cases it is a massaging of the prompter script. It doesn’t have the richness and depth of coverage that encourages more exploration of the website, which not only helps with the site’s ‘stickiness’ but also helps build the brand identity of the news organization. Newspapers need the video coverage that local TV stations possess on their websites and local TV stations need the depth of content newspapers have on theirs. First one to solve that equation wins!”
Impact of New Delivery Methods
The new electronic devices and systems not only change the physical package, they can change the presentation method.
Bill Hayes says, “If the future is really on-demand, the viewers will each create their own channel made up of the content that they want, when they want it. The linear channel model may ultimately go away in favor of the all a la carte all the time model.”
Prof. Conti: “What I want, when I want it, where I want it. That’s what media companies need to keep in mind. Hulu answers two of those needs. However, the business model used for Hulu today isn’t likely to be the business model of Hulu in the future. Once a fee is imposed for access to content, I’ll be curious to see what happens. At the moment, any device which makes viewing more convenient or gives the consumer more control over the choices is very powerful. The ‘on demand’ delivery systems are going to continue to erode ‘appointment television.’
“On demand delivery tends to negate the need for TV news anchors since consumers could be free to select individual stories and view them in any order. That can certainly change some of the local TV economics. Still, all of these new technologies are supplemental delivery systems. Traditional, over-the-air delivery of content still pays the bills. The media players of the future will need to create a demand for their brand and then use it in multiple platforms.”
Prof. Weaver: “Basically it means conventional TV news has to pay attention and think of ways to get itself on outlets like Hulu and Youtube. TV news services are trying to follow the audience to where it views content … shifting the concept of dedicated ‘channels’ and copyright or intellectual property along the way. So that’s the effect … producing content that can appear on the original ‘channel’ as well as anywhere else.”
Madden: “There’s only so many hours in the day, so any TV service such as Hulu, whether online or cable, involving TV viewing hours has the effect of diminishing available audience or reducing the size of the pie, so all news channels will then be competing for a smaller slice and that could put additional pressure on news operations for ratings.”
From Walter Cronkite to Jon Stewart … Really?
Perhaps the most jolting sign of change in this arena is the fact that some Americans, in surveys, say they turn to Jon Stewart’s satirical show on the Comedy Channel to get their news.
“I believe Jon Stewart would be the first person to tell anyone who does that they are ill informed,” says Prof. Conti.
“His show is intellectual, it is funny, it is entertaining and it is also informative. It should not be the only source someone uses for learning about what is happening in the world. He does good interviews, as good or better than anyone I see. He does his homework. I am a fan of the show. I do not rely on it for all of my news and information. The show makes more sense and the jokes are funnier if I read some newspapers or watch some TV newscasts before I watch ‘The Daily Show.’ He creates another dialog.”
Prof. Muller: “I don’t believe that many of those people ONLY get their ‘news’ from Jon Stewart. When my students tell me how much they like ‘The Daily Show,’ I cheer them on … you can’t understand satire unless you are fairly well-informed on the content that is being satirized! And here’s an uncomfortable truth: Stewart often ‘commits’ real journalism by holding public figures accountable for their hypocrisy … something professional journalists should be doing more often!”
Bill Hayes likes it: “I watch ‘The Daily Show’ and there are many times when it appears to me that Stewart is actually offering the best pure report on the facts. What he does very well is to expose the more ludicrous parts of a story and question at times whether something is really news.”
Lisa Weaver wraps it up for us this way: “I think it’s sad and I don’t get it. I don’t understand why people perceive journalists’ and news organizations’ efforts to be objective as a cover for an agenda. I think most Americans have little appreciation for what the First Amendment really affords us a society, and they have no idea how hard doing good journalism is. I like Jon Stewart’s show, it definitely has a place, and he is often quite serious and gets beyond his own persona to get to the issues. My point is it should not be a question of ‘either, or’ and hopefully the audience will also appreciate mainstream news.”