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
NEW YORK — 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.
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.' ''
But as the economic environment has changed, so have technological possibilities. Satellites added immediacy to news broadcasts. Network access to other sources of stories and images also grew: NBC regularly taps the International Television Network (ITN); Reuters TV; and N-TV, a Japanese service. During the recent Ebola virus breakout in Zaire, for instance, an ITN cameraman entered areas inaccessible to the NBC reporter.
When Gralnick was a reporter in Vietnam in the '60s, ''the stuff that was being broadcast in the United States tended to be three or four days old, until the first satellite [links] went in to Tokyo in May of '68.''
Today, ''There isn't anything out there that I want that I can't get my hands on,'' he continues, not gleefully but soberly, a workman cataloging his tools. ''We have all manner of news sources that, in effect, extend the reach of the broadcast.'' For a breaking story, say, in a refugee camp in Zaire, ''we will be seeing all manner of pictures -- from BBC, or ITN -- that our correspondent in the eye of the hurricane is not seeing.'' They help the correspondent write his story to the images that work best for telling that day's story. ''They write their pieces, and we use the best pictures that we can,'' he says.
The widespread use of satellite technology now also means that some stories break on local stations before network news can air them. ''We're aware how many other news sources there are for people,'' Gralnick says, ''so when it comes around our time on the clock, it is our job to bring in an extra reporting dimension.... That's what keeps our niche in the marketplace. The same kind of pressure that TV at the dinner hour worked on morning newspapers, local TV news is now working on network television news.''
MANY critics charge, however, that these new resources are being used as an end in themselves -- to attract viewers, using grabby images and exotic locales. Pictures, they say, push some stories onto the air because they look good, and the lack of pictures causes other stories to be dropped, shortened, or run later in the show because they were graphically weak.
''The networks' rationalization,'' Kalb notes, ''is that by making a deal with the BBC [for instance], they don't have to have correspondents anywhere -- you can just go with the BBC picture. And that is the key: You can go with the BBC picture, but do you know who shot it for the BBC? The answer is, no. BBC puts a very respectable label on whatever tape comes in under its logo. But all you're interested in is the tape.''
Kalb is a fan of Gralnick's professionalism (''He and Tom Brokaw are both terrific'') and feels they and their colleagues in the industry do the best they can under the circumstances.
But TV newscasters ''are so fascinated about having a live picture from Tiananmen [Square],'' Kalb asserts, ''that you don't tell anybody what's going on there or what it means. It's the fascination with just being there.''
Some analysts dub this trend ''technological determinism.'' Professor Gobetz says the onslaught of new technology ''will inescapably drive the industry to new directions'' where the ''miracle'' of access, and not a story's inherent value, will govern choice.
Kalb says he saw the problem coming. In 1968 he was on vacation from CBS when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. ''Walter [Cronkite] calls and says 'Come on in,' '' Kalb recalls, '' 'Do a piece, take as much time as you like, explain why the Russians moved in.' Being no fool, I wrote a piece that came in under two [minutes].'' He was done by 4 p.m.; they all loved the piece, he says.
But as other parts of the broadcast were adjusted and more pictures came in, ''I was asked if I could cut my analysis down to 1:15. I said, 'Sure. You'll lose something.' They said, 'Yes we understand, but let's cut it anyway.' I did.
''Then at about 5:30 [p.m.] we got film of a fire in New Orleans. I will never forget this -- it was the day the Russians moved into Prague, and people were genuinely frightened. The producer came to me shamefacedly and said, 'Would you be able to cut your analysis down to 45 [seconds]? We've got to get this film of the fire in.' I said 'Why?' They said 'Because it's sensational film.' I said, 'OK, cut it to 45.'
''Was the producer evil?'' Kalb asks ''Wrong? Unprofessional? Not at all. But pictures were beginning to dominate everything. That was a gigantic, shocking new thing.''
The basic reason, say analysts like Gobetz, is that TV news seeks not ''to inform the most people, but to create and maintain a commodity -- the audience -- so that commodity can be resold'' to advertisers.
In recent years, network news programs have seen their audiences decline. (See chart, Page 12.) Some observers expected NBC to overtake CBS after the latter's loss of some powerful affiliate stations to Fox in December. ''Nightly News'' took on something of a new look, including a strongly visual, capsulized format.
But NBC has continued to trail slightly, and the impact of its third place was felt in the replacement last January of ''Nightly News'' second-in-command Phil Griffin. At CBS, the firing of Connie Chung as co-anchor with Dan Rather on the ''Evening News'' is another sign of ratings turmoil.
Another sign of the network news struggle for ratings, Kalb says, is the willingness to forfeit solid news for human-interest material.
If you compare today's presentation of ''The NBC Nightly News'' with that of 10 or 20 years ago, Kalb says, ''you would find that the program today is softer, more feature-oriented.... When you look at the programs today, are you looking at hard news any more? No. The first segment is hard news, the second sometimes a mix.... With the third segment, you're into the soft area.''
Many other analysts see this effect as stemming partly from sometimes-opportunistic news-magazine shows -- some syndicated, some on the networks. The effect is not a marked sensationalizing of news, but more human-interest features like ''Eye on America'' on CBS and ''The American Agenda'' on ABC.
ON the NBC newsroom floor, honeycombed with cubicles, a mix of pressure and professional cool can be felt, a charged atmosphere of writers at work. A continuous winnowing of stories takes place. At 9:30 a.m., Gralnick holds a conference call with bureau chiefs. At 2:30 p.m., some of the staff regroups to decide what the three lead stories will be.
Tension tends to build as air time approaches, but Gralnick calls the entire day one ''constant idea churn.'' Choosing the leads is almost always difficult.
It's like a funnel, he says. At the top, ''There's a giant news engine. In the middle of the funnel are all of these 'screens': the Brokaw screen, the Gralnick screen, the bureau chiefs. What finally trickles out at the bottom of the funnel is the broadcast....
''You begin with your first screen: What impacts the most people? Then you get into which piece is more interesting, which piece is better written, which is more likely to be engaging and accessible to the audience?
''The obvious stuff is easy to deal with. The president's in Ottawa today. That's either going to be a piece or not a piece. Probably not a piece.... It's a process that defies simple description.''
Who governs that process?
''It's a committee chaired by Tom and me,'' Gralnick says. ''Tom's the boss. Each day begins the day before in terms of looking ahead to the fabric of the news. Today is an example: There are 14 or 15 candidates to get into today's broadcast.''
It ends up, on average, with eight items. Even so, as they air, lots of coordinating and close timing is needed, as a view from the control room proves. Dozens of monitors line the walls, showing local and national coverage by other services. The director sits in front, with Gralnick behind him.
''The director is basically making it happen,'' Gralnick explains later. ''I'm telling the director what I want to have happen.''
Through the high-pressure details of the workday, Gralnick appears to be conscious of the show's meaning to viewers.
''In part it's the town crier role,'' he says. '' 'Six-thirty and all's well,' or 'All's not well.' That's been the function of the dinner-hour news program from the very beginning. Like it or not, for some unfortunately large percentage of the population, we're going to be their primary source of news. What we include is what they know, and what we're forced to exclude, they don't know.''
* Part 1 ran May 22; part 3 will appear June 6.