That was the subtext of the Letterman-Koppel contest. Over the 80-year history of broadcasting, news evolved from loss-leading "sustaining" operation to profit center, to brand identifier, to branch of entertainment. The next stage may see it become a wholly differentiated product, and that may require one or two of the older networks to get out of news altogether.
Hostage to Murrow
Broadcast network news is largely undifferentiated now, and that may be its biggest problem. The news has been hostage to the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, which has rendered it the province of a narrow, dwindling elite. At its core, the Murrow tradition of seriousness, probity and no sacred cows is to be treasured. But those values make it increasingly marginal to the large swath of the public that, faced with ballooning choices suffused with contemporary entertainment values, is rejecting the grits it has been force-fed for years.
Readers will protest that news content has changed enormously over the years, abandoning politics and foreign affairs to emphasize lifestyles, health and "news you can use." But these changes belie the rather static context in which news is presented. For the most part, old male anchors still serve up what the public needs to know via correspondent stand-ups, taped documentary reports and other ancient conventions. Even insignificant changes, such as anchor-correspondent banter or pop music accompaniment, elicit howls of protest from purists. So they occur slowly, if at all.
The real game: ad sales
The result: The news audience ages and becomes difficult for the broadcast networks to sell to advertisers. Because ad sales (and its result, shareholder value) is the game, it makes utter sense for ABC to consider replacing the sole late-night news offering with entertainment.
That's not a tragedy. It's creative destruction. There's more news content in TV land than ever before. Add up the viewership of the three major cable TV news operations plus the smaller alternatives and there are probably more news junkies out there than ever before. The public, in short, is being served.
Faced with competition from cable networks with advantaged financial models (dual revenue streams; smaller, more involved audiences; niche concentrations, etc.), it's harder for broadcasters to participate in the serving. So why shouldn't one or two get out? There's nothing that requires all broadcast networks to be powerful in "Murrow-style" news, any more than all consumer products companies need to be strong in detergents.
So one network can play hard in news while others choose different paths: outsourcing the news division or differentiating the news product by, say, tailoring it for the 18-to 35 crowd. (My friend Michael Wolff of New York magazine makes a credible case that NBC, with two cable news networks in addition to its network news operation, so dominates the news "shelf" that its primacy is secure.)
Instead of mourning the death of mass culture represented by lookalike network news operations, we ought to celebrate the elevation of choice. People will still be in the know. They may even know different things.
Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.