Fresh faces won't bring young eyes to network news

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The installation of Brian Williams to succeed Tom Brokaw at "NBC Nightly News"-and whoever replaces Dan Rather when he steps down in March as anchor of the "CBS Evening News"-shouldn't be confused with an effort to seize the attention of younger viewers. The regime changes are unlikely to bring shifts much beyond personality to a format that's been a central part of American journalism for decades-and one where the most prevalent ads are for health-care products suited to the older audience.

"It would be very difficult to bring a young demographic to network news' half-hour broadcast no matter who they put in there," said Robert Thompson, professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. "I suppose if Jon Stewart takes Dan Rather's place then we might have something to talk about. Short of something radical like that-which is not going to happen-the audiences for these kinds of broadcasts are always going to skew older like they're skewing now."

Long before Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and other new-media phenomena such as blogs began to prick at the authority of mainstream journalists, the Big Three anchors' sway had been under attack by the emergence of cable news channels. Since 1980, the year CNN launched, the evening newscasts' combined share dropped from nearly 72% to about 36% today, according to Nielsen Media Research. And the viewership has gotten older, with the median age of a newscast viewer at 60, according to Pew Research Center.

Part of this is attributable to the fact that the networks' evening newscasts haven't been particularly malleable.

unchanged model

"There's not much [they can] change," said Donna Speciale, president-U.S. broadcast and programming, Publicis Groupe's Media-Vest. "News is news and you either like it or you don't."

Not only have each of the evening news shows been dominated by a single personality for two decades or so, they also have left the model relatively unchanged. For instance, the network morning news shows have changed personalities and tweaked the mix between news and entertainment as well as toyed with the set and added elements of audience participation. By contrast, the evening broadcasts have stuck with packaged pieces by correspondents, while cable news is characterized by more immediate-feeling remote stand-ups, debate and analysis.

media consumption

Another factor is, quite simply, the changed media-consumption habits of the demographic most desirable to advertisers. "There are too many ways for younger people to get news and they are too familiar with those ways-the Internet, their cellphones, cable networks," said Ray Warren, managing director at media buying and planning firm OMD, a unit of the Omnicom Group.

In any event, the nighttime newscasts, despite some rumors of their demise, will continue to subsist on ads for laxatives and incontinence remedies at least until the current audience dies off and the younger end of that troubling 18-to-49 demographic goes gray.

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