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.