Finally, network news will be live out West

ABC cites the value of West Coast viewers as it revamps its evening broadcast with more live reports.

On the West Coast, "Saturday Night Live" isn't live. Neither is the "NBC Nightly News." From Seattle to San Diego, TV viewers have long been served warmed-over evening news and entertainment programming that aired live a few hours earlier in the East.

But now, the West Coast's second-class status is about to end, at least with one nightly national news program. Starting Jan. 3, ABC will offer two live broadcasts of "World News Tonight" for West Coast viewers at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Pacific time, featuring new co-anchors Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff.

ABC touts the change as a recognition of the value of West Coast viewers. "They really want to make this work, to make a splash and get an edge that makes them different from the other guy," says former ABC Los Angeles correspondent Judy Muller, now a journalism professor.

With the network evening news broadcasts on ABC, NBC, and CBS facing increased competition from other news outlets, some say ABC's move to go live, is also acknowledging that less-than-fresh news doesn't cut it anymore.

"It seems almost absurd to be giving somebody three-hour old news when on the Internet you can get something that's much more up to date," says retired Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg, who has long complained about tape-delayed programming.

With a few exceptions, like "Monday Night Football" and the Oscars, nearly all live primetime news and entertainment programming is tape-delayed in the Pacific, Mountain, Alaska, and Hawaii time zones.

Yet the national nightly news shows do insert updates if major breaking news occurs, and live West Coast editions air during big stories like hurricane Katrina.

Even so, the network news shows can't always keep up, Ms. Muller says. It can embarrass local affiliate stations out West when their local news broadcasts include more up-to-date details about national stories than the network news shows that air moments later.

And even though the words "live (except on the West Coast)" don't appear on newscasts as they do on entertainment programs, viewers also can notice when a broadcast isn't fresh - as when the news airs at 6:30 p.m. in Spokane, Wash., in December and an anchor is seen interviewing a reporter in San Francisco in full afternoon sunlight. "Even just a matter of whether the sun has set can make [a broadcast] look old," Ms. Muller says. "People are very savvy. They'll say, 'That was taped.' "

How different the live versions of "World News Tonight" will be remains to be seen. But the show's executive producer Jon Banner says, "There were times in the past couple of weeks ... where I've said that would have been a completely different 'World News' on the West Coast."

For example, he says, updated newscasts could have given West Coast viewers more current details about congressional negotiations on the Patriot Act.

However, live news reports, which have become common in local and network news broadcasts, aren't always a plus, says Mr. Rosenberg.

In the past, he says, "news stories were better crafted, they weren't live, and people weren't talking off the top of their head."

The change is not for the better, he says."It's gratuitously live to make you think something is important and exciting. It's theater; it's dishonest," says Rosenberg.

As of now, the two other networks have not announced new plans for West Coast editions.

It is clear, however, that "ABC is not just rolling over" in the face of competition, says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Network news still has some tricks up its sleeve."

Despite all the buzz about network evening newscasts losing viewers to other outlets, the shows are very much alive, Thompson says. Their combined audience of about 28 million - nearly 10 percent of the US population - in early December is much higher than their cable news competitors.

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