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For the Networks, Good News Is A Profitable News Show

The bottom line replaces public service, but to those on the inside, news is news

By Alan BunceStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 30, 1995


THREE minutes to air time and Tom Brokaw -- tie yanked down, wearing shirt-sleeves -- is still sitting in his newsroom cubicle writing a late-breaking item.

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Finally the ''NBC Nightly News'' managing editor and anchor gets up and walks unhurriedly toward the studio -- sliding up his tie and now wearing a jacket -- to begin his familiar live broadcast. It will reach more than 8 million homes from the third floor of the GE Building here.

Seated in front of the cameras before the program begins, Mr. Brokaw just has time to run a comb through his hair and rehearse a headline.

The half-hour broadcast that follows, at 6:30 p.m. EST, is the final product of an intense, day-long, tightly timed process. The breadth and complexity of that process might astonish viewers who see only its final product -- a flow of major stories delivered in punchy capsules with many graphics.

That process takes place in a radically altered news universe, one whose changes include:

* The loss of network news's once-sacrosanct status as a public service, replaced by a management view of news as a profit center.

* Technologically enhanced access to and timeliness of stories worldwide.

* Pictures as a determining force.

* A decline in overall viewership and a stepped-up ratings race among the ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly newscasts.

* ''Tabloid TV'' shows like ''Inside Edition'' and other exploitative formats that create new viewer expectations.

Yet the production process -- the minute-by-minute actions of professionals at work -- gives much the same impression of skill and dedication it has for years.

''News is news,'' says ''Nightly News'' executive producer Jeff Gralnick during a talk in his office. ''Basically we're doing the same job now that we were doing 30 years ago. We just have a better understanding of how we can do it. We've learned a lot.'' Mr. Gralnick has been in network news since 1959.

''For as long as I've been in the business,'' he says, ''the broadcasts have had the primary responsibility of answering these questions: 'Is my world safe? Is my home safe? If not, why not? And when will it be safe? And what else is interesting?' ''

''In the 30 years that I spent at CBS and NBC,'' says Marvin Kalb, professor of press and public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. ''I probably would have given you the same statement. When you are in the business on a day-to-day basis, it is sometimes hard to see the way in which a whole variety of forces and changes are cutting in on the way you functioned in the past.''

Mr. Kalb came to Harvard as director of the Joan Shorenstein Center in 1987. Since he's been studying the networks, he says, ''I have learned more about the industry than I knew when I was in it.... My feeling was fairly strong that, while there were changes, those changes were not affecting me directly -- that I was able to ride above them on their crest.'' As an observer, he says, he can appreciate the changes more.

To Kalb, the networks' view of news has changed from a public service designed to inform, to a profit center. The major switch, he says, is ''the interrelationship of economics and technology, both of which today drive the industry.... The people who run the industry today are not, generally speaking, those who regard public service as their prime responsibility. They are in the business of making money.''

One result was a reduction in bureaus and staff in the late 1980s and early '90s after ABC and NBC were taken over by large, profit-minded corporations. (See list at left.) According to Dan Amundson, research director for Washington's Center for Media and Public Affairs, ''The accountants came in and said, 'We don't need that bureau; we can buy the same story from Reuters or CNN.' ''

Robert Gobetz, a professor of electronic media at the University of Indianapolis, puts the owners' attitude this way: ''To paraphrase the late great Vince Lombardi, 'Profit isn't everything, it's the only thing.' ''