Times are changing for network news

When CBS announced that it would broadcast a special edition of The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric in prime time on January 28, the media questioned the network's intentions.

When CBS announced that it would broadcast a special edition of The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric in prime time on January 28, the media questioned whether the move was a publicity stunt or experimentation with time slots. CBS contends that it was a one-time special – with the news lined up against ratings champ American Idol – intended to draw new viewers to its 6:30pm newscast.

CBS is trying to showcase the star qualities of Couric, who quieted many of her critics last year with her interview of then-vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK), says Jason Samuels, journalism professor at New York University and former producer for ABC News' World News with Charles Gibson.

“CBS has shifted the narrative from ‘Will Couric leave?' to [the fact that] her show has momentum,” he says.

When NBC announced last year that it would move Jay Leno to prime time, it signaled that there are no more sacred cows in TV programming, he explains.

“The entire landscape of prime time has shifted, especially given the economics,” notes Samuels. “It's far more economical to produce a news show than a drama in prime time.”

Other networks may follow CBS' lead. If Couric gains ratings via the experiment, other networks will likely do the same, especially if CBS really abandons the venture after the one-time foray.

“If I'm at home at 8pm, and I like the CBS News special – it won't do much good if I'm not at home the next night at 6:30pm to watch it again,” Samuels notes. “CBS is either selling a lot of TiVos or this is a long-term experiment.”

The networks have their work cut out for them if they're trying to attract viewers to their newscasts by directly challenging American Idol. However, they're also well aware that their traditional 6:30pm viewership is eroding.

“Given the workday is longer, people's commutes are longer, and there are more channels, the audience for the earlier newscast is shrinking,” explains Patricia Dean, associate director of the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Yet if attracting a younger generation of viewers, who are accustomed to a greater variety of news sources, is a primary goal for the networks, they have to go beyond reorganizing the time slots of their newscasts, she adds.

“This is an opportunity to rethink the approach to evening news,” Dean says. “They could go with the CNN approach of more stories in a shorter amount of time. They could go with a news-magazine format or go beyond a solo anchor.”

Yet CBS experimented with new formats, including commentary from outside and sometimes contrarian sources, when it introduced Couric as its network anchor in 2006. The more informal structure was widely considered a failure and sank CBS News in the ratings. However, Samuels contends that the networks would do well to differentiate the newscasts.

“The network newscasts right now are identical,” he adds. “There needs to be some diversity in stories, storytelling, and the faces telling the stories.”

Mark LaMet, lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former network news producer, contends that network news broadcasts are still seen as a platform for top journalists, but some modifications would help.

“It's good for the networks for trying to bring in a bigger audience to that,” he says. “I hope others will follow suit, but I don't think [changing time slots] will stem the tide entirely on its own. That tide has to be stemmed by entirely new thinking.”

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