Given that rather sobering picture, maybe the discussion shouldn't be over whether Katie Couric will last at CBS through the election. Maybe it should be whether we need network-TV news at all.
None of the networks was even willing to entertain the suggestion that it wasn't completely committed to its evening newscasts, so this isn't a story about how one or the other is about to close down its news division. But the economic incentive to reshape their news departments is pressing.
Collectively, ABC, NBC and CBS's network newscasts lost about 1.2 million viewers in 2007, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a 5% drop from the year before. Even the audience for the morning news shows -- the most successful of the news departments' endeavors -- fell for the third year in a row, the PEJ study said, down 2% from the year before, its lowest point since 1999.
Not surprisingly, ad revenue has followed viewers elsewhere. Spending on the three major morning news shows -- ABC's "Good Morning America," NBC's "Today" and CBS's "Early Show" -- fell to about $1.03 billion in 2007 from about $1.05 billion in 2005, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. And ad spending on the three major-network evening newscasts tumbled to about $502.8 million from about $538.3 million in 2005.
Target is not at home
The audiences advertisers most want to reach -- upper-income consumers between the ages of 18 and 49 -- are still at work, not sitting in front of the tube, when the news comes on. The average age of the evening-news watcher is 60, according to media agency Magna Global.
"The people that you're after, they are not home watching the 5 o'clock news or the 5:30 news or the 6 o'clock news," said Debbie Basham, senior VP-director of negotiation and activation for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen agency, who oversees local ad buying for the firm. "There are a lot of media plans that may not have news on there, because the people you are seeking are not out there."
Networks have already responded to the squeeze. Based on estimates, PEJ believes total network-news staffing declined 10% between 2002 and 2006, with the number of on-air journalists falling 7% and the number of producers off 12%. According to reports, between 100 and 160 employees at various CBS Corp.-owned TV stations recently were laid off as part of an initiative to meet budget requirements; several of those were high-profile on-air news personnel.
As a result, perhaps, subject focus has begun to shift. During the past several years, coverage of international stories has been scaled back, said Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report analyzes the content of network newscasts. Despite an initial rush to cover the war in Iraq, he said, that focus has begun to trail off. "Iraq has fallen off the radar" as the U.S. presidential campaign becomes a bigger story, he said. "That change, I don't think, is anything that would have happened 20 years ago."
Optimism seems in short supply among financial analysts. Sharing news operations in far-flung parts of the world seems increasingly likely, said David Joyce, a media analyst with Miller Tabak & Co. News organizations that can amortize costs by creating stories for a number of outlets are probably best off, said Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein. "You would think that NBC has a clear advantage because of their link with MSNBC, and CBS and ABC probably will have a harder time long term finding cost synergies," he said.
Digital technology could give these programs new access to younger crowds -- though it's not clear whether increased efforts in that area would ultimately bolster the economics of news-gathering by network or local-affiliate news departments. The belief is TV networks and stations will deliver news in a broader fashion, in a way that is not as heavily dependent on sitting in front of a screen at a certain time of day.
Even as the web beckons, broadcasters still have an obligation to act in the public interest as part of their licenses to use federally owned broadcast signals. Given the new-media landscape, is it possible the three networks eventually will be able to make the case to the Federal Communications Commission that their news divisions would be more effective on other platforms? Digital opportunities abound, including transmitting content across multiple TV channels and streaming reports online.
"One of the big questions will be: What are broadcasters' public-interest obligations in the digital age?" said Scott Cleland of Precursor Group, a media and technology consultancy.
That issue could be one to argue in the not-so-distant future. "I can say with no hesitation that we will see changes within the network-news paradigm over the next few years," said Debora Halperin Wenger, associate professor of convergence and new media at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Those stories aren't just for TV anymoreEven as support for their flagship newscasts gradually erodes, networks and local broadcasters are testing ideas designed to harness digital media's potential. Why wait for 6:30 p.m. to roll around when people are getting their news online all day -- and network-branded newscasts can insert themselves into the equation?
NBC News sees a future in distributing content around the clock, whether it be through online video, a blog written by anchor Brian Williams or its flagship newscast. The news-gathering operation has aligned itself so its work can be used by the evening broadcast, MSNBC or digital properties, said Steve Capus, president-NBC News. The operating idea these days, he said, is "bring it in once and use it as many times as humanly possible, and that is how our newsrooms are set up and ... how the business is set up."
At ABC, the news division can point to its "ABC News Now," which delivers news stories of various lengths to TV, the web and mobile devices. In September, the network deployed seven "digital reporters" in various places around the world, said Paul Slavin, senior VP-ABC News, who oversees its digital operations. These reporters may see their stories on the evening newscast but are focused on delivering content for multiple venues.
Digital distribution also means hunkering down more strongly on certain topics, Mr. Slavin said. "We can't be all things to everyone, but we can have the best investigative unit in the business. ... We can bring a level of reportage and quality to entertainment reporting, law and justice, politics."
CBS also sees a chance to try new things, said Sean McManus, president-CBS News and Sports. Streaming live events online has potential, as does soliciting opinion and user-generated content from viewers. Like ABC's Mr. Slavin, however, Mr. McManus sees a healthy future for the traditional evening news and said a big, recognizable network anchor continues to be an important part of the recipe.
The online business, however, is viewed as its own product when it comes to advertising, one that draws a higher cost per thousand given the difference in reach, though ads on the web versions of the news are much less expensive.