Those Were the Days, My Friend

by Norman Horowitz

Those were the days, my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way
Those were the days. Oh yes, those were the days

It has always pained me to say that the delivery of network news is very similar to the delivery of entertainment programming. There’s a cost associated with the delivery of news, and there are ratings and the sale of spots to advertisers. The higher the ratings and the lower the cost, the happier the managements would be.

Twenty years ago, when our population was about 250 million, the three network news broadcasts delivered 36 million viewers each night. About a year ago, when the U.S. population was hovering around 300 million, they delivered 24 million viewers.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.” While the name of CBS News remains the same, the future of all of the network news divisions is questionable. The contemporary competition for the networks is cable, whereas forty-plus years ago it was “each other.”

And so, CBS News chairman Jeff Fager recently held an employee meeting when he made some predictable comments about the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:  

There’s plenty of reason to be proud our evening newscast. It is at least as good as the competition and more often than not — it’s better. But I have heard people say the evening news is a broken model — a broken model with more than 20 million Americans watching CBS, NBC or ABC every night? Most people don’t watch more than one night a week so more than 50 million Americans watching in a week? That’s not broken…that’s incredible.

Dan Rather, essentially “playing in the same game” as Fager, has been quoted as saying:

The next time you hear about another round of layoffs at a TV news division, the closing of a bureau, the decision not to cover a foreign story with full force, remember this week of silliness in April.

Remember the millions of dollars, hundreds of staff and hours of coverage spent on a wedding in London when crises around the globe and here at home festered. Remember the unseemly pas de deux between the press and a reality TV show huckster peddling racially-fraught falsehoods, as both interviewers and the interviewee seek a bump in ratings.

And then please take a moment to remember the eight American soldiers and one contractor killed by an Afghan soldier at the Kabul airport in a war too easily forgotten. Remember the hundreds likely being killed in Syria and Libya, not to mention the death and unrest plaguing countries like the Ivory Coast, which almost never earn more than a mention on our most-watched newscasts…

The networks couldn’t ignore the devastating storms that killed hundreds in the South, but you had the odd juxtaposition of that news being delivered by anchors sitting in front of Buckingham Palace…

What bothers me is the hypocrisy. The idea that we can’t afford to throw resources at an important foreign story, but can afford to spend this kind of money on a story like the royal wedding is just plain wrong. The idea that we can’t break into regularly-scheduled programming for an address by the president is wrong as well. When the topic was the “Birther Story” (better referred from here on out by the first letters of those two words), the networks jumped right in.

As a journalist, you like to be the one asking the questions. But it’s time that some of our news executives gave some answers of their own.

Fager and Rather are purported “innocents” playing in a “game” called “news.”News is a game inside of a game called “the network.” The network is a game inside a corporation at least partially involved in a business loosely called “media.” Media (ABC, CBS, and NBC) is made up of complex organizations like Time Warner, CBS/Viacom, and Comcast/GE/Universal.

In my opinion, the managements of these companies care little, if at all, that their network news divisions do anything except either make money or lose as little money as possible. Coverage of the royal wedding is “content” just like everything else in the network’s schedule and designed to attract an audience and sold to advertisers.

When I worked for CBS over 40 years ago, they were a mostly standalone company and essentially had their roots in broadcasting. They cared deeply about the delivery of news and the presentation of high-quality documentaries. They were certainly interested in making as much money as possible, but at the same time they were dedicated to what they considered their responsibility of news delivery.

They were also “looking over their shoulders” at the politically motivated regulators who were “looming” at all times. If you owned a business worth many billions of dollars, how happy would you have been messing with the people who could take your business away from you?

For the last fifty or so years, the attitudes of stations and networks have been effected by the presence or absence of regulatory oversight. There was a time when broadcasters were afraid that their licenses were in jeopardy, and they behaved accordingly. No more. With (among other things) the 1996 communications act rewrite and the removal of the financial interest and syndication rulings, they are free to do almost whatever they want to do, which to me is not a good thing.

Money makes the world go ’round…