I know of no more sorry a spectacle than the wizened newsman weeping with nostalgia for the golden age of journalism—which just happens to coincide with his own glory days.
Ted Koppel sobbed this eternal lament in the Washington Post Outlook section on Sunday, Nov. 14, in a piece titled "The Case Against News We Can Choose." His news peg? The 2-second suspension served by MSNBC Countdown anchor Keith Olbermann after Politico reported that he had violated company policy with his campaign contributions.
This isn't the first time Koppel has complained about the ruination of TV news by the cable channels. In 2006, he penned a similar op-ed in the New York Times upon leaving ABC News after working there for 42 years. In both the Post and Times pieces, he accuses the cable networks of giving audiences what they want instead of what they need to know because it's the best way to secure advertising profits. Such profit-pandering was unlikely in the 1960s, he writes in the Post, because network TV news "operated at a loss or barely broke even," a fulfillment of the "FCC's mandate" that broadcasters "work in the 'public interest, convenience and necessity.' "
"On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable," Koppel writes in the Post.
Koppel continues that it wasn't until 60 Minutes proved TV news could make a profit—"something no television news program had previously achieved"—that news divisions started chasing revenues.
The assertion that TV network news lost money everywhere until Don Hewitt birthed 60 Minutes is frequently repeated. But it's wrong—dead wrong—as a paper in the December issue of Journalismby Michael J. Socolow of the University of Maine shows. Socolow has Koppel's number, writing:
[B]roadcast journalism, historically, has played a direct—and at times central—role in increasing the profitability of American network broadcasting. …
The idea of the philanthropic news division continues to be propagated because network journalists—and their employers—derive benefits from its public dissemination. It allows journalists to indulge in jeremiads about the decline of journalistic standards and the intensity of contemporary corporate pressure. Like all jeremiads, it calls upon a community to restore supposedly timeless values. The myth legitimizes a normative vision of professional broadcast journalism in the United States as protected, disinterested, and independent. [Emphasis added.]
The myth that network news didn't make money owes its origin to artful bookkeeping, Socolow informs us. The networks have never broken out profit-and-loss statements for their news divisions or allowed the press access to their budget documents because it has never been politically advantageous for them to do so.
As this Time magazine story from 1965 explains, the shows had no trouble attracting advertising in the 1960s. NBC News' nightly news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report,brought in an estimated $27 million a year in network advertising revenues, making it NBC's highest-grossing show. CBS News' evening broadcast, anchored by Walter Cronkite, collected an estimated $25.5 million. According to Socolow, CBS and NBC reaped additional revenues from their "owned-and-operated stations" in places like New York and Los Angeles, which sold local ads during the network broadcasts. "Having these stations is like having a license to print money," Socolow quotes CBS Chairman William Paley as saying, "and the news department justifies it."
Socolow reports that artful bookkeeping forced NBC News to pay a fixed sum to support the NBC Orchestra. Fred Friendly of CBS News complained that the news division couldn't lease or buy its own studio space, cameras, or transmission lines but had to pay the going corporate rate. He unearths a 1951 memo by Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver, carping that NBC accounting practices made virtually every NBC program look like a money loser. Weaver wrote that a show would get billed $60 whenever the NBC staff repaired a broken ladder that originally cost just $4.
More accounting tricks: After NBC stated that it spent $800,000 on the coverage of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, hospitalization, and funeral, it admitted to reporter Edward Jay Epstein that at least $500,000 of that included salaries of existing news crews and technicians and "general overhead" that had to be paid regardless.
Socolow amply documents that making money from news was already a tradition at CBS and NBC in the radio era, writing that "by 1944 news programming provided the majority of NBC's revenues." He points to former NBC News President Reuven Frank's 1991 memoir, Out of Thin Air, * where Frank writes that Camel cigarettes "supported the entire national and worldwide structure of NBC Television News—salaries, equipment, bureau rents, and overseas allowances to educate reporters' children." And NBC News was free to sell ads beyond the Camel spots. According to Socolow, the Today show, a news-division product, became NBC's most profitable program by 1954. "By the early 1960s, both NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report and the CBS Evening News were earning enormous revenues," Socolow writes, paralleling the booming revenues of their parent networks.
How big was the take? "I don't think the news division of a network ever lost money," Frank says in a 1989 interview cited by Socolow.
Koppel is correct when he cites the success of 60 Minutes as a news-business turning point, one that proved a news-division program could make entertainment-division-size profits. But to say, as Koppel does, that because of 60 Minutes,"a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed" is beyond stupid. It's bad reporting.
If Koppel is so keen on criticizing the sensationalizers and popularizers of TV news who are bent on turning profits, won't he please look in the mirror? In 1979, when American hostages were taken in Tehran, ABC News capitalized on being the only one of the big-three networks with a presence in the country to start nightly special broadcasts titled The Crisis in Iran: America Held Hostage. That Koppel-anchored show morphed into the profitable Nightline franchise. I can't take a wrecking ball to everything Koppel has done in his life. He obviously did some good work with Nightline. But the ambulance-chasing and audience-pandering contained in that show set the template for the coverage of O.J. Simpson, Natalee Holloway, Anna Nicole Smith, Laci Peterson, Elizabeth Smart, the Balloon Boy, and others.
There's a lot wrong with broadcast and cable news, but hustling for profits isn't their main fault and never has been. In fact, profitability is a good thing for TV news because, as Socolow indicates, it gives news divisions the muscle they need to push back any person, institution, corporation, or government bureaucracy that would try to stifle independent reporting.
Correction, Nov. 15, 2010: The original version of this article misnamed Reuven Frank's memoir. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
When I read a Koppel column, I can hear his too-practiced voice reading the copy in my head. Do you have this problem with voices in your head? Send your mental health problems to firstname.lastname@example.org and chase the ambulance that is my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)