Obviously, the news peg for this news notion is the leadership transition at two of the three legacy broadcast networks. The retirements of Dan Rather at CBS and Tom Brokaw at NBC would prompt soul (and business-model) searching under the best of circumstances. The distressingly coincidental disclosure of ABC anchor Peter Jennings' illness only adds to the urgency. The era of sober celebrity talking heads is over. Either something comes next- or nothing does.
Mind you, I hold no brief and carry no nostalgia for broadcast-network news. Three years ago in this space, I recommended that the b-webs give up on the activity. The claw-like legacy of Edward R. Murrow, I argued then, was leading to a suffocating lack of differentiation and the inevitable slow demise of these franchises, anyway. Audiences were well served by cable news choices and by other alternatives that rendered TV news moot. Why not give it up?
One answer is that some 30% of U.S. households don't have cable. Subtract those that have satellite, and you're still left with 15% to 20% who rely on broadcast. While one might object to the eat-your-peas force-feeding of news in an already information-drenched culture, even my info-libertarian heart isn't so hard that it would argue in favor of denying TV news to so many.
But the broadcast networks won't be able to support the nightly newscasts for much longer without dramatic format changes. News began as an unprofitable, "sustaining" obligation of the networks. In the 1970s and '80s, partly through the creation of infotainment programs such as "60 Minutes," the b-webs began to realize profits from their news divisions. Indirect value was even greater: The networks learned that a strong network newscast could anchor a night of high-CPM prime-time entertainment.
Today, though, as the population ages and new generations consume news in different ways from different media, the pendulum is swinging away from profitability. As business- es, the broadcast networks should be free to pursue these new audiences with new formats.
But there remains an audience for traditional news. (I'm in it.) And there remain a large number of traditional news people driven to find and deliver it in compelling ways. (Several such talented, moral stalwarts are my closest friends.) To serve this supply-demand chain, the three broadcast networks can combine their divisions and finance a nightly newscast on public broadcasting.
Yes, the concept (borrowed, at least in its financial model, from C-Span) is fraught, at least on the surface. PBS already is a political football. Its reputation for unbridled liberalism has led it to bend over backward and add conservative programming that's as silly and feckless as an Alan Colmes appearance on Fox News.
But if news programmers think expansively, something wonderful might possibly emerge. Taking the best reporters, producers and other talent from the three legacy newscasts alone would make for great programming. Imagine if you added a nightly critique, by both liberal and conservative commentators, of the newscast. Sure, toss in the dutiful Jim Lehrer and his respectful commentariat. But give "Wonkette" Ana Marie Cox a half-hour as well. You could end up with a three-hour block of time that educates and juices millions of viewers.
The point is, it might actually be possible to recreate TV news, on broadcast, and make it interesting and exciting again, both to traditionalists and the rising audience. Doing so, though, might require a creative solution that commercial TV cannot provide.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton