Lady C's InfoNapsterizer

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8.10.2004

Mainstream Media (MSM) News Scheduling - 1 -- Why not in prime time?

Brian Lambert asks in the Twin Cities.com Pioneer Press "Why don't the networks put news in prime time?"

I have a stock question for network news and programming honchos. It's a question that never fails to set the gurus' eyes rolling, and it invariably elicits a big sigh, as if to say I must have just fallen off a turnip truck or something.

It is: "Why not move the nightly news into prime time? Either at 7 or 9, you pick it. But something other than 5:30 in the Midwest, when the only guaranteed audiences are retirees, the homebound and agoraphobics. At 5:30, your target audience --working men and women with families, mortgages and, presumably, an interest in the news of the day -- is either stuck in rush-hour traffic or dealing with after-school activities/chaos.

"At the very least, it might help you with that upper-end household income demographic."

Having been blown off on this question countless times over the years, most recently by NBC's Jeff Zucker (president of their news, entertainment and cable group) at a bash at the Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles, I was surprised to hear it come up as a topic in a discussion with Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw this past weekend.

The discussion, which also included CNN's Judy Woodruff and PBS' Jim Lehrer, was held in Boston during the Democratic Convention and aired on C-SPAN.

The Big Three were quick to say their respective networks -- now subsidiaries of giant, bean-counting corporations with as much interest in their washing machine divisions as their news operations -- had no intention of changing anything.

"It's not even a topic of discussion," said Rather.

But each thought it should be. Rather said when he got into the anchor game lo so many years ago (he took over for Walter Cronkite in March 1981), he hoped and maybe even believed the network would eventually expand into an hourlong newscast.

He said he continues to hold onto the dream, against all evidence that CBS and its big broadcast competitors will ever think of a larger edition of nightly news in prime time. He said he thinks of it as a kind of hybrid, with elements of "Nightline" mixed together with the day's headline news and longer feature packages.

The standard reply, from the Zuckers of the world, is, "Why? There's news all over cable. Anyone who wants it can get it in a half-dozen different places."

Well, yes and no. Last time I checked, CNN's Headline News, with its constant updates on Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking (stories the Big Three largely ignore) is your only stop for actual news. By prime time, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are all into some level of info/op-ed entertainment. Some of that is very good (Keith Olbermann). But most are circus acts (Bill O'Reilly).

The point is, with the arguable exception of CNN's Aaron Brown at 9 p.m., none of it comes with the depth, breadth and production quality of any of the networks' 22-minute nightly newscasts.

For example: How much better would viewers be served by actually being able to see all of Brian Ross' investigative pieces in ABC's (woeful and chronically underperforming) prime time? Or, how about some prime-time exposure for briefings from Pentagon correspondents like CBS' David Martin or NBC's Jim Miklaszewski?

My argument is always that for all we, critics and public, carp about stories the networks screw up, ignore, soft-pedal or mince around, the news divisions of ABC, NBC and CBS are still the gold standard for electronic news. Cutbacks, shuttered foreign bureaus, etc., notwithstanding, these people are as good as it gets here in the States.

More to the point, with so many critical issues crying out for something better than op-ed infotainment, primetime broadcast news seems as good a way as any to genuinely serve the public, and, I'm willing to bet, revitalize each news division's bottom line with some fresh, younger viewers.

These are pertinent questions. How are the networks going to defend what marketshare is left to them if they don't renew their sudience with younger viewers? Won't their "low cost, decent ratings" prime-time news magazines suffer from lack of audience connection in the coming years? Audiences tuned in to Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, Jane Pauley and Dan Rather in prime time because they were known and well-liked brands.

How will the networks connect with those viewers in the future if they don't make their "star reporters" personalities whom viewers find engaging and informative? How do folks know they don't like the news unless they try it? And they're not given much chance on the networks' current schedules. It's not as if the cost of production would be dramatically greater, given the sunk costs already put into their current staff of reporters, bureaux and production facilities.

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