CBS, what is the frequency?

Media criticism.
March 7 2005 6:33 PM

CBS, What Is the Frequency?

What the network should do in the post-Rather era.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

The woolly mammoth had about 1,000 years notice toward the end of the last Ice Age that their feed-bag, the grassy steppes, would vanish and that they'd best find a new home. Nature tendered a similarly generous warning to the broadcast networks that their evening news niche was vanishing. In 1980, 75 percent of televisions in use during the dinner hour were airing an evening news broadcast from one of three networks. By 2003, the number was down to 40 percent.

Of the three retreating network mammoths, CBS has stumbled the worst. Dan Rather's CBS Evening News show has finished a distant third during most ratings periods since 1993. And though all three evening news shows continue to lose viewers, the rate of defection from Rather's continues to be the highest. The New York Times reports that Rather's program is down 10.8 percent over a similar period a year ago, compared to 4.4 percent for ABC's program and 6.7 for NBC's.

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Granted, Rather's goofy style makes your eyes bulge and your ears buzz. He's so unpopular that there are probably more Arizona Cardinals fans than Rather fans. But is the failure of the CBS Evening News all his fault? I'd argue that 1) he's mostly a victim of a changing media environment and 2) CBS helped dig the ditch Dan vacates this week, one so deep that not even Walter Cronkite could have climbed out of it.

Some folks trace Rather's problems to Laurence Tisch's takeover of CBS in the mid-'80s, after which he cut the news division's budget, hence its quality. Verne Gay notes in Newsdaythat Rather's ratings began their big decline in 1988. Even if Tisch's cost-cutting harmed CBS News, by 1993 Rather's show was still neck and neck with ABC for the No. 2 position in the ratings and within shouting distance of No. 1, NBC. Then in May 1994, Fox Broadcasting Co. chief Rupert Murdoch fractured CBS distribution with an investment deal that persuaded eight television stations to flip their network affiliation from CBS to Fox. In big markets such as Detroit, Atlanta, and Milwaukee, CBS's replacement affiliates were low-rated UHF stations. In Detroit and Milwaukee, CBS had no local news program to feed viewers into CBS Evening News. The program's ratings collapsed and except for a brief uptick in 1996 have tumbled ever since. At the same time, CBS surrendered NFL football to Fox, weakening all CBS affiliates.

CBS also failed to invest in a cable news channel, a strategy that has helped NBC amortize the cost of its news division. That said, even if CBS had done everything right and the fates had smiled upon it, the best you could say for the CBS Evening News was that it was dominating an atrophying and doomed broadcast niche.

Broadcasters know this, and they know that the mass audience they once enjoyed will never come back. They also know that their viewers didn't merely transfer allegiance to cable. Cable news viewership peaks between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., mostly due to The O'Reilly Factor's extraordinary popularity. On a good day, about 3.5 million people watch all cable news during that period, which is still small compared to the combined audience of 29 million each weeknight for the broadcast network news. In recent years, even local news operations have lost market share at about the same rate as the network beasts. "The issue," according to a Journalism.org study, "is not just that people have turned off the television set. They have turned off the news in particular."

So, instead of pretending that it's 1985 and that CBS News can return to its former ratings glory by hiring the right anchor face, such as CNN's Anderson Cooper, or by reducing the broadcast to a succinct 15 minutes, or by targeting the female audience, as expert newshounds suggested last week in the New York Observer, or any other cosmetic strategy, CBS would be wise to design a newscast for the modern audience.

CBS should worry less about who anchors its evening news ship than what the ship looks like. Any of the current CBS doofuses will do as an anchor. It's not like Brian Williams and Peter Jennings light my charisma candle. CBS could steal a march on NBC and ABC and the cable networks by designing a program that reflects changing viewer habits. It needs to break the code of why viewers have turned off the news.

First, CBS should target serious news consumers, the sort of devotees who follow breaking news all day through news radio, cable, and the Web. Dedicate the program to breakingest of breaking news and ditch the news-you-can-use and heart-warming features unless they're stupendous. Produce a program that's worldly and doesn't waste time. The BBC World News, which airs on many PBS affiliates, is a good model, even if it is excessively chatty for my tastes.

Next, reduce the number of commercials. Right now, about eight of the 30 minutes of an evening news slot are ads, which makes the program too short and too frequently interrupted to be compelling. The Journalism.org study asserts that one reason the network's morning "news" programs have gained viewers steadily since 1998 is that viewers have realized that they often program big blocks—up to 20 minutes—free of commercial interruption. Advertise the CBS Evening News as the program that gives hardcore news consumers two minutes more news per half hour. Cutting ads will reduce revenue, of course, but it will build audience, which is the longterm problem the program faces.