As Evening TV News Shows Resume Their Decline, Some Suggestions From a Text Guy

The time is now to avoid repeating the mistakes of print newspapers

Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (especially its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.

Two of the three broadcast television network news divisions have recently named new presidents, and while I am sure they are getting a lot of advice from experienced experts in the field, I thought I might also offer some from afar.[1]  I do so because I am not sure the folks in network television news really understand how much trouble they are in.[2]

Entering a fifth decade of decline

In 1980, Walter Cronkite’s last full year as anchor of the CBS Evening News, he and his competitors at ABC and NBC drew an average nightly audience of 53 million viewers. As cable television rolled out and habits changed, that number fell through the rest of the Twentieth Century to 32 million by the year 2000, and then to 26 million—half the Cronkite era level-- in 2006. In the ensuing decade and a half, the decline actually slowed even as broadband internet swept across the land, to 22 million in 2019. Of course, the US population was growing all the while, so that where nearly one in four Americans (including children) watched an evening network news broadcast in 1980, that proportion had collapsed to fewer than one in 14 in 2019.

The pandemic boosted all audiences for news, and evening network TV was not an exception. Last year, the three shows’ audience was back to 30 million, which is to say, to 2002 levels. That’s helpful, of course, but it’s worth contrasting it with the fact that almost all digital-native news outlets recorded all-time high audiences last year, while the evening news was still down almost 45% from 40 years earlier, even as the population had grown 45% in the interim. And this year, even as the pandemic continues, the aggregate evening news audience has slipped back to 24 million, already less than 10% above pre-pandemic levels.

Still profitable— for now

Why aren’t these people panicking?  In a word, money. The evening shows are still quite profitable, and their morning counterparts, while drawing about half the aggregate audience, but with a more desirable demographic yielding almost three times the revenue, are wildly so. Yet, after the pandemic blip, profits from a shrinking and aging evening audience are, unsurprisingly, declining, and it’s hard to see the trend reversing.

All of this puts me in mind of a more familiar (at least to me) story, that of print newspaper circulation. In the US, this peaked in the late 1960s and then roughly plateaued until 1990, when cable news began coming into its own. Print newspaper circulation then began declining-- well before the consumer internet-- and fell about 15% even before broadband began posing a fundamental threat to its advertising-centric business model. Even still, the year 2000 was the most profitable in newspaper history. Five years later, print papers began what is now widely recognized as their terminal decline.

Newspapers spent too many years watching this all happen, largely denying, even to themselves, that it was. Network TV news divisions need to avoid that mistake, and move to deal with the problems squarely. I have two suggestions for how they might do that.

What next?

First, as many newspapers have belatedly realized, a return to roots in genuine investigative journalism is in order. At its best, such work is compelling, original and shareable, while most of today’s evening news is none of these.

In the glory days of broadcast news, investigations like “The Selling of the Pentagon” and “Harvest of Shame” were the pride of these organizations. Today, real investigative reporting is largely an afterthought for the networks, and thus for their evening news shows.

If, for instance, you Google “investigations ABC News,” you are directed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before anything from the American ABC network. Both 20/20 on ABC and Dateline on NBC have long since gone tabloid, the former literally still, in 2021, telling stories about the Menendez brothers. Even 60 Minutes, by my count, did a total of just eight investigative stories in its first 15 episodes this year. Because there is such a paucity of longer form serious investigative pieces to draw on, the evening shows have little such content to include in their own broadcasts. (NBC, it should be said, is something of an exception, and does tend to produce at least one such short investigative piece a day, although some do not run on broadcast television.)

Second, while not abandoning the 6:30 warhorse—30 minutes interspersed with lucrative commercials for elder care products and prescription drugs in accord with the needs of the audience—it is long past time for these well-endowed organizations to also invent separate and entirely new on-demand, digital daily video news summaries for the Twenty-first Century.

It is not that ABC, CBS and NBC have not tried to create such programs, but it is that they have not tried seriously. What is in order, I think, are well-funded, widely-marketed programs, with original content and first-rank lead players (perhaps “anchors,” perhaps not), aggressively distributed and structured in truly innovative ways. For instance, their length each day should vary, as the salience of the news varies, and they should be accessible on a wide range of platforms, while being designed to be sharable and even somewhat interactive. Crucially, they should be on-demand and untethered to a particular device, not just time-shiftable on a TV.

Overall, that is, there is a need to thoroughly reinvent the network evening news, a product that has only evolved slowly since its own last reinvention in around 1963, and which is all too recognizable as the “Cronkite show” in a world that Cronkite left a dozen years ago at the age of 92.

Yes, such programs would, especially if they were successful, to some extent cannibalize the current evening news shows. But those shows, to return to where we began, are already in their fifth decade of decline. And, as newspapers have learned to their great regret, steadfastly refusing to cannibalize your own operation does nothing to prevent others from doing so. At the moment in video news, the three broadcast networks still have a competitive advantage. If they wait long enough to begin truly innovating, again as newspapers have seen, they will not.

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[1] My only work experience in television news came during a summer as a lowly desk assistant at ABC more than 40 years ago.

[2] Cable television news faces a different set of issues, less existential, although far more threatening to the country in my view. But that’s a subject for another day.