Why wait till 7? Fast changing channels. The future of TV news. Part 2
New York — ``There's more talk of change than there has been actual thought of change'' in network news, according to Peter Jennings, the ``ABC World News Tonight'' anchor. Most of the much-heralded change in presentation of today's network evening news is cosmetic. Computerized graphics and redesigned sets represent the major moves toward updating newscasts.
Despite much talk about the need for more analysis and interpretation - in an effort to create a raison d'^etre for dinner-hour news when many people already know what the day's headlines are from other sources - there is only a barely discernible movement in this direction. The evening's major story sometimes receives a minute or two more than the usual 1-minutes.
More evident, however, is an increase in short special series about problems such as drug abuse, AIDS, and child abuse. These are usually aired during ``sweeps'' periods, when audience levels are calculated in order to set advertising rates.
Mr. Jennings notes an increase in reporting on health and medicine, even though he doesn't feel there have been many other changes. He believes, however, that technology is proving to be the biggest threat to quality news. ``The rapidity with which we can now work risks undermining the time for thinking which journalism requires....''
Most media-watchers not engaged in the daily presentation of network news agree that there is an overall tendency to lighten the mix. ``Trivializing the news drives me up a wall,'' says Richard Salant, former president of CBS News. ``In the midst of the Iran-contra hearings and the Persian Gulf crisis, `CBS Evening News' spent the last three minutes on the Joan Collins divorce.''
Bill Moyers argues that network news executives make a serious mistake by blending entertainment values with news values. ``American audiences,'' he insists, ``are more sophisticated than many executives realize and can discriminate between news and entertainment. When they see the news reflecting entertainment values, they begin to lose critical respect for the news.'' He believes that process may now be irreversible.
Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, now a member of the network's board of directors, tells the Monitor, ``I think there's a different philosophical thrust in the production of CBS News [now]. There is a feeling that it should be more interesting, more entertaining. I think they are fairly hard-hitting when they're reporting the news. But there is certainly the intention to lighten the broadcast with more feature material. That could be interpreted as being softer.''
How can the average viewer of network TV news tell when he is being cheated?
``If there are too many feature stories,'' Mr. Cronkite warns. ``If they are not telling you fully what's happened that day. If, instead, they are misdirecting your attention to something of absolutely no importance to your world.''
In the area of analysis, John Chancellor is the only regular commentator on the network evening news since Mr. Moyers left CBS in 1986. Mr. Chancellor calls himself ``the only aardvark in the zoo.'' Aside from ``the little minute-and-a-half interviews done by the anchors to flesh out the news,'' Chancellor says, ``the news as we do it today is exactly the way we did it when John Cameron Swayze did it back in the 1950s. You saw John Cameron Swayze full-screen; then you saw the pictures, and you heard the sounds; and then you saw John Cameron Swayze again full screen; and back and forth.''
The future of network news? That may be a different story. The networks claim their finances are still touch and go. Recently all three were telling Wall Street they expected to lose money this year. Then came financial reports indicating that 1987 will prove profitable after all (although third-quarter profits were off by more than 4 percent). Consumer advocate Ralph Nader insists the networks have merely gone from ``exorbitant profits to generous profits.'' But whatever the result for this year, the long-range outlook for viewership and profit isn't rosy.
Most experts predict that overall network viewership, which has been declining for the past three years, will continue to decline as audiences exercise their new options. Already-tight news budgets will be tightened further. For the 50 million Americans who tune in the nightly network news, alternatives are growing:
Local TV news is expanding. More and more stations throughout the United States are adding national and international coverage to their local reporting. So many viewers now tune in the local news, notes Prof. Vernon Stone of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, that ``the great majority of network-affiliated stations are making money from these shows, no matter how badly they are managed.''
Satellite linkups are becoming more important. Conus, a cooperative of 67 local television stations, is sharing resources via satellite. Stanley E. Hubbard II, Conus vice-president, explains, ``We provide alternative national and international news to local stations.'' He predicts, ``Soon some local stations are going to throw off network news for headline news and demand only commentary and analysis'' from the networks.
Direct-broadcast satellites will enable viewers to pick up newscasts from all over the world, via their own rooftop dishes.
Syndicated news programs show promise. The Independent News Network (INN) already offers a complete news service to many stations. In the fall of 1988, USA Today will syndicate a half-hour TV version of the newspaper, concentrating on short, upbeat reports. Executive producer Steve Friedman tells the Monitor, ``I know people call the newspaper `McPaper.' I have no problem with them calling the television version `McTelecast.' The paper is a quick read; we will be a quick watch.'' The Christian Science Monitor is another paper that has decided to go the multimedia route. The Monitor has daily and weekly radio programs as well as a weekly television show, ``The Christian Science Monitor Reports.'' Early in 1988 there will be a daily television news program as well.
Continuous cable newscasts provide service the networks can't. The C-SPAN cable channel covers congressional sessions and hearings as well as other political news. The Cable News Network (CNN), available 24 hours a day, is usually on the scene throughout a breaking news story.
According to CNN vice-president Ed Turner, ``We are doing things network news can't possibly do. They have 22 minutes, and that's it. Anyway, by the time Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw come on, CNN and the local news have told it all.''
Professor Stone says, ``CNN and C-SPAN are what we all envisioned television being a long time ago, where you can witness important events live, in detail, uncut.''
The ``MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour'' on the Public Broadcasting Service is another alternative to network fare that not only covers the headline news but delves more deeply than the networks into analysis of important stories. So far PBS hasn't been able to raise the funds to compete more directly with network news-gathering, but PBS has been competing well on the documentary level, winning 11 of this year's 37 news Emmys, more than any of the commercial networks.
In addition to the growing array of new alternatives, there's the tried and true option of print, which some television specialists consider important. Mr. Cronkite, for example, says: ``I worry about the fact that more and more people are getting all their news from television. There's no way in the world that any network news can tell you in 22 minutes all you need to now about your world that day. If you're going to be well informed, you've got to be a multimedia customer.''
So, amid the many alternatives, what changes can the networks make to assure themselves of a place in the sun? The ideas vary. Many insiders are thinking about comparative ratings positions ratings and about fine-tuning newscasts to fit specialized audiences. Most recognize that the major problem, in the words of ABC News president Roone Arledge, is ``the dilemma of how much news people have when they tune us in.''
Chancellor says, ``Programs ought not to try to be everybody's news program but take into account that people already know the basic elements in the news. The evening news should explain, interpret, analyze those stories.''
Bill Moyers, the former ``CBS Evening News'' commentator, who left the network to become an independent producer for public broadcasting, says, ``When people come home, they don't need headlines anymore. They need insight, analysis, commentary, interpretation, explanation - fair, balanced, but journalistic. ... CBS News has been dying slowly from terminal irrelevance. ... The critical 5 to 10 percent of the viewers who came to rely on CBS News for important reporting were turned off by finding their precious time being wasted on inconsequential or amusing pieces that they could better have gotten on `Entertainment Tonight.'
``The news was concentrating on how to entertain, amuse, and titillate people, instead of how to illuminate, inform, and help people.''
One of the most-discussed ideas at the networks is lengthening the evening news. Advocates include Moyers, CBS News president Howard Stringer, and CBS anchor Dan Rather. ``I'd love to try one hour of network news at 9 p.m., preceded by good entertainment at 8 p.m. and followed by good entertainment at 10 p.m.,'' Mr. Rather explains. ``I believe we'd do well in the ratings, provide a good public service, and make money.''
NBC News president Lawrence Grossman would like to see ``a 90-minute combination - three-quarters of an hour of local news followed by three-quarters of an hour of national news.''
Fred Friendly, an ebullient former executive producer at CBS News, says, ``I wish CBS would take their four or five corporate-owned stations and do an hour of news. Some of the affiliates might come along, and the others would come when the reception proves good.''
But Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC's ``Nightline,'' demurs. ``All this talk about news programs at different hours I consider gimmickry,'' he says. ``Networks are reacting to the reality they find: The composite share of the audience for the three networks is going down, and they come to the not unreasonable conclusion that maybe news would do better at another hour. That really is not a new direction for news; it is simply a new direction for scheduling. I'm not convinced we need an hour of nightly news. I say, first of all, let's prove we know how to use the half-hour properly by producing tougher, cleaner, harder news.''
Whether for financial or philosophical reasons, Koppel's comment seems to echo the feeling among the network decisionmakers: The hour-long newscast seems a dead issue, at least for now. But other ideas are in play.
Mr. Stringer is thinking in terms of a morning ``news and information program'' that will ``build an audience for science, health, medicine, law, etc.'' The new ``CBS This Morning,'' which premi`ered Monday, may do just that.
ABC's Jennings says he would like to ``add a lot more science and cultural reporting'' to the news.
One new/old program concept designed to accomplish some of the current goals is far along in the planning. ``48 Hours,'' a CBS show scheduled to start airing in January, will be the first regularly scheduled prime-time documentary series for the network since ``CBS Reports'' became an irregular series way back in 1971.
But will the networks move toward expansion of news or contraction? The answer is by no means certain.
Av Westin, who has just been put in charge of ``new long-form programming resources'' at ABC and of overseeing ``ABC News Close-Ups'' and the ``Jennings/Koppel Report,'' warns, ``Unless attention is paid to the shifting elements in the conveyance and acceptance of news between local and network, we may end up seeing the evening news, which used to be the network news flagship, replaced by programs like `Nightline.'''
Mr. Salant, the former CBS News president, says the prospect of the disappearance of the evening news is indeed real. ``One possible scenario is that CBS could become an entertainment network. The new corporate ownership could say, `Why are we doing news at all, since it is unprofitable, especially since the local stations say they can do it themselves?'''
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. Tomorrow: Tuning in to new possibilities - the networks' chief competitors.