Last week’s revelation that NBC’s “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams may have embellished, if not simply fabricated, the details of a 2003 helicopter incident in Iraq may have been the death knell for a news format that dates back to the middle of the last century.
For decades, ABC’s “World News,” “CBS Evening News” and “Nightly News” were the dominant source of national and international news in America. Those shows took the place of newspapers and radio as a source of up-to-date information.
At its peak, “CBS Evening News,” with Walter Cronkite at the helm, pulled in an average of 27 to 29 million viewers. By comparison, Cronkite’s audience was nine times the size of Bill O’Reilly’s top-rated cable news program, “The O’Reilly Factor,” which has an audience of around 3 million on any given weeknight.
In 2015, the broadcast network news viewership is still much higher than any cable news programming, with NBC and ABC averaging around 9 million viewer nightly and CBS around 8 million. The difference, however, is that the audience for cable news is growing, even with the erratic ebbs and flows of the news cycle. Meanwhile, the audience numbers for network news has been in a downward spiral.
You can trace that decline, which began with 1980 launch of CNN. Around that time, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather were the trio in Americans’ homes and still riding the wave of broadcast news’ dominance. Slowly, however, each year the number of those households watching those broadcast has gotten smaller.
Part of the reason is the rise of cable. There are more choices for viewers every night at 6 p.m. besides ABC, CBS and NBC. Then along came even more competition with the launches of Fox News and MSNBC in 1996. With three choices of 24-hour news broadcasting, no longer was the audience captive, nor was it required to be in front of a television at a set time.
Perhaps the biggest blow to any single giant source for the news was the rise of the Internet. It did take a while for people to trust the Internet – but now everyone has a place to go to find out whatever they want about anything whenever they want.
With all these new pressures, the three major networks never innovated. Not only did they stick to a general business model of 50-60 years, over the years as the number of younger viewers dissipated, rather than think of ways to bring back the younger viewers, they doubled down on efforts to lure older viewers.
The beginning of the end came in 2004, when then-CBS anchor Dan Rather got caught up in a controversy involving then-President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. As it turned out, documents that called in to question Bush’s service and alleged he gained an undue benefit because of his family’s influence, were fraudulent.
The country was in the midst of a presidential election campaign between the incumbent Bush and then-Sen. John Kerry. Many saw Rather’s efforts as nothing more than an attempt to influence the outcome of that contest.
While the report aired on “60 Minutes” and not his “Evening News” broadcast, the damage was done. A storied institution could no longer be trusted and it confirmed for a lot of people what they had claimed all along — major news outlets have a political bias. For the next 10 years, broadcast news had continued to exist – but with new faces, however none of them have been the answer.
Scott Pelley, Dan Muir and Brian Williams reading hours-old news from a teleprompter with a fluff piece or two thrown in the mix isn’t the draw. Do you remember the last time you sat through an entire broadcast of a NBC, CBS or ABC evening news program? Me neither.
Opinion journalism on cable has been on the rise because by 6 p.m. ET, everyone interested already knows the day’s events. Thus the impact of what is shown on broadcast news on the day-to-day political landscape had dwindled. Even in a busy news cycle — be it an election, a natural disaster, a major court decision or some sort of foreign conflict, people are programmed to tune into a cable news channel.
There may be a time in the not-so-distant future when those three broadcasts cease to exist. Budgets have been downsized and the return on investment isn’t there for the corporations that own the broadcast networks. It’s just not cost effective to produce a half-hour nightly national news broadcast as it once was.
One of the models that might replace it would be how FOX broadcasting handles its news programming. Aside from its Sunday morning public affairs program, FOX affiliates have expanded local news, which includes national news and it allows those affiliate to pick and choose what national and international news they wish to include.
Brian Williams hasn’t helped the cause.
Williams’ actions will also turn away viewers and advertisers. It also exposes another flaw with the old broadcast news model where programming is built around a personality. The problem with that model is you’ll never be able to create another Walter Cronkite.