More Young Americans Turn Off Network News

Networks scramble to regain viewers who are pressed for time and enticed by burgeoning number of media options

Max Alvarez is a self-described "news junkie." A twenty-something technology executive, he's just the kind of young person you would expect to watch the television networks' nightly news programs. But he doesn't.

"The timing is wrong. I'm just not home at 6:30," says Mr. Alvarez. "But if it was on at 8 or 9 p.m., I'd probably watch it."

Alvarez is one of the network news executive's worst nightmares. Young, informed, and aggressive, he gets most of his "fix" from newspapers and magazines.

And he's not alone. A study released this spring by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that the overall viewership of local and network television news is continuing its steady decline. But among young people and computer users, there's been a precipitous drop.

The reasons given in the poll are lack of time and increased use of computers. But many media analysts and young people, and some network executives, see deeper causes. They range from the burgeoning of media outlets, to lack of relevance in television news stories, to increasing cynicism in the tone of the reporting.

"I think TV will have to deal with the problems that newspapers have been facing for years," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, the Washington-based media think tank that conducted the study. That is: "How to keep young people's attention."

Mr. Kohut notes younger people have always had less interest in news than older generations have. But the gap, his study says, is wider than ever, in part because even the young people you would expect to watch the nightly news, such as Mr. Alvarez, don't.

To shore up their slipping dominance, all three major networks are scrambling to keep ahead of the technology and a hold on to the next generation's wandering eye. All three have jumped onto the Internet with extensive Web sites. And while all three said they wanted to start 24-hour cable-news networks to compete with CNN, so far only NBC is ready to start up. Its joint venture with Microsoft, MSNBC, gets underway in July.

But some critics think the networks are shooting in the wrong direction. They contend that news executives should focus more on changing the current journalistic culture than on expanding their organizations' reach.

"In the last 10 years, television news has blurred the lines between information and entertainment; it's less relevant, more sensational, and more negative - it's a turn-off," says Rachel Burg, coordinator of the Youth Voice Collaborative (YVC), a nonprofit media literacy initiative for youths in Boston. "Young people today are much more media savvy than any generation before, and they know they have choices."

Ms. Burg says most of the teens who enter her program don't watch either local or national news. But after learning about the role the media play in a democracy, most become regular and critical viewers of both.

"It used to be just a hassle - the focus was towards adults," says Millie Commodore, a high school student and member of the YVC, "but now I get stuff out of it."

Millie is also involved in trying to make the local television news broadcasts better, at least from her perspective. She and other YVC youths analyzed the local newspapers and news broadcasts and found that the few times youths were portrayed, they were either victims or victimizers.

"The news doesn't reflect their reality, the vital role they play in contributing to the community, which isn't as a liability, but as a real resource," Burg says.

As a result of their evaluation, the teens recommended doing more stories about positive things in which teens are involved, going beyond the simple presentation of victims and victimizers with stories on the long-term consequences of violence, and interviewing young people, not just experts, on youth problems.

Reporting good news

Paul Dubois of the American News Service thinks recommendations like those can also help revive the network-news divisions' audiences.

"One thing we know about the majority of Americans, they're deeply concerned about the social problems of this country," says Dr. DuBois, whose fledgling news service is dedicated to reporting constructive news stories. "They're angry, but most of them feel powerless and voiceless; so they withdraw, and the problems become worse."

Dubois contends that the current network newscasts emphasize Washington politics, celebrities, and scandals, and are "essentially not useful" to people who are working to improve their communities. "They could use a little bit more of citizen problem solving by ordinary people," DuBois recommends. "In other words, become relevant to the lives of their viewers."

For most network news executives, such harsh criticism stings - particularly because it doesn't recognize the effort they've already made to address such concerns. All three major networks now incorporate segments dedicated to examining the problems facing Americans, from CBS's "Eye on America," to ABC's "American Agenda," to NBC's "In Depth" segment.

"I think the criticism is valuable and hope we can prove we're taking it to heart," says Andrew Lack, president of NBC News. "And we are working really hard to fix it, but for some reason - in areas where we think we have already made some pretty good fixes - the public doesn't seem to buy into it."

Mr. Lack also insists that the network-news broadcasts are far better produced than ever before, and the public also has more access to news and information than in the past. Even though that has helped bring about the decline in the network news' audience, he believes it's good for the country. He also argues that the press should continue to be critical and skeptical.

"I'm not in a popularity contest, and people forget that; it's what they value in a free press," says Lack, adding that while people know news is important, they may not necessarily like it.

But CBS News president Andrew Heyward says all three network news operations have settled into a rut. "We train for sameness, even though we reward distinctiveness," Mr. Heyward says.

Heyward also acknowledges that television provides an "unending blitz" of information as it moves quickly from one topic to the next. "Not only do you get no context, there's a curious leveling effect, everything appears to be of equal importance," he says.

Taking the long view

The challenge is to remedy that by continuing to hire and promote reporters and producers who value ideas and take "the long view," he says, and to provide more expertise and analysis. But there is a dilemma. The nightly evening newscasts are designed to be 22-minute encapsulations of the day's events.

"That's your rason d'etre - you abandon it at your peril, yet you stick with it at your peril as well," Heyward says. "[By providing a more comprehensive program] you loose some of the urgency, the 'must-see' quality for someone who wants to see what happened today. But if that's all you do, then you're not sufficiently distinctive to survive."

Indeed, Alvarez is a big fan of ABC's "Nightline" because it provides the depth and context he believes is missing from the evening news programs. "'Nightline' tends to do stories from a different angle," says Alvarez, who doesn't mind staying up late to watch.

ABC News vice president Richard Wald says the network news operations have to continue to go where the audience is, which is one reason ABC started early morning newscasts. He calls his decision not to go ahead with a 24-hour cable channel "a loss of possibility, not a hot idea."

"We don't command an audience. We don't say, 'Sit down and watch!'" says Mr. Wald."We persuade an audience. We've got to go where their attention is fixed."

But Wald also takes a more philosophical view. Once people got most of their news from magazines. Then newspapers took over, next radio muscled in, then television supplanted that. No one is sure where the current information revolution is going, but Wald is confident there will be a role for network television news.

"Homer started it all. There are still poets down in [Greenwich] Village who will sing you a poem," Wald says. "Things change, but they don't disappear, they simply change."

And as for ensuring the next generation will be informed news consumers and the Max Alvarez's of the world tune into the evening news, NBC's Lack says, "We're working on it."

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