What if ... evening news was Sunday-morning thoughtful?
HAMDEN, CONN. — When Leslie Moonves must decide where to take CBS News, he should consider a program that is everything nightly broadcast television news is not: bright, interesting, warm, witty, always interesting and altogether human. And it has nothing to do with celebrity hosts or square-jawed or perky news anchors. It's just old-school reporters finding good stories to tell in interesting, insightful ways. The answer for the network is "CBS News Sunday Morning."
This isn't a plea to replace discredited Dan Rather with "Sunday Morning" host Charles Osgood and leave the Evening News structure in place. Instead, CBS needs to package the relaxed intelligence and rhythm that percolates throughout Sunday Morning and frame it for the pre-prime-time audience. The pace of the program perhaps would need slight acceleration and more hard news but generally, the "CBS News Sunday Morning" format would return evening news to its storytelling strength.
Here's why. Sunday Morning isn't lathered in self- importance. The well-crafted stories matter more than the host. Mr. Osgood simply steers the program through its menu of stories. To be sure, he lacks the contemporary anchor's central affectation as America's father, or older brother.
NBC, for example, remains stuck in "Leave It To Beaver" mode, only shifting from Tom Brokaw's firm but fair Mr. Cleaver to the casual credibility of Brian Williams's Wally (think of Shepard Smith as Eddie Haskell and Chris Matthews as Lumpy. Peter Jennings? He's Whitey). The Osgood aesthetic could transform the Evening News into a place where the audience can gather and watch the news from beginning to end.
TV news creates stories for random sampling by an audience that darts in and out of programs. But is the audience the issue? The answer may be found in classical music.
In a recent column in "La Scena Musicale," Norman Lebrecht concluded that the concert establishment wrongly blames fading attendance on shortened attention spans. That is "both fatuous and patronizing," he wrote. It's not the music; it's the structure of the concert that moves concertgoers to plot their escape minutes into a performance. Similarly, nightly news executives blame the disappearing attention span as the reason for the demise of their programs. The problem gets bigger, however, as executives ignore TV's muscular inheritance as a storytelling medium. They assault the audience with bucketfuls of verbal, visual, and aural artifacts. Anchors and reporters reach for the top in reporting even the most mundane detail. Screen and soundtrack merge in a riot of incoherent quick-cuts, graphics, and music that simultaneously comments on how dangerous the world is and how nice it is to live in. In short, nightly broadcast news is dazed and confused.
It's not surprising that the audience rejects this format and decides to consume news on its terms, without the clutter, on the Internet. Mr. Lebrecht pointed out that classical-music promoters sought to make the music more inviting by adopting wireless devices to assist the audience in understanding the music - but the technology accelerated the decline of audiences.
"Sunday Morning" composes, extraordinarily well, narratives about a variety of subjects at a pace reasonable enough to give the audience a sense that the subjects are interesting and worth investing time to learn about. The subtle emphasis of story as story binds the program into a seamless whole even though a wide variety of subjects are covered.
The winning formula of "CBS News Sunday Morning" is to tell a good story well. The broadcast of March 6, for example, included extended pieces about Martha Stewart's release from prison, a legal battle between homeowners and a Connecticut town over eminent domain, features on rock singer-songwriter John Fogarty and actor David Hyde Pierce, and a retrospective on Mr. Rather. Osgood opened with a preview of the main stories and a recitation of the hard news from overnight.
Nightly network news no longer needs to emphasize the day's breaking news. The Internet and audience that has fled there graze on mainstream media, blogs, and other information nuggets throughout the day. Mr. Moonves would be making a catastrophic mistake if he wants TV to mimic the Internet or to add more technology to the program. The Internet fails to hold an audience for more than a moment.
The audience, meanwhile, wants to watch TV. Moonves would do well to listen to the rhythms of "CBS News Sunday Morning" and learn why it is the only news program worth watching at any time.
• Rich Hanley is a media studies professor and director of the graduate program in communication at Quinnipiac University.