TV Upfront

Weary of 'old' label, nets take snooze out of news

But as buyer puts it: 'If younger audience isn't there to watch, why reinvent it for them?'

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When katie couric ended months of speculation by announcing her departure from NBC's "Today," the stories breathlessly reporting her ascension to the throne of Cronkite and Rather practically doubled as an obituary for the three network evening news broadcasts.

After listing Ms. Couric's $15 million annual salary to anchor CBS' evening newscast, the stories discussed how viewership is down, how the news shows' audience consists mainly of craggy old biddies, how drug advertisers are the only ones that want anything to do with the broadcasts.

If you didn't know any better, you'd have expected the three venerable evening news broadcasts to have gone the way of "Emily's Reasons Why Not" by now.

As it turns out, the situation seems nowhere near so dire. During the week of April 10-14, the three nightly broadcasts-NBC's "Nightly News With Brian Williams," ABC's "World News Tonight" and lowest-rated "CBS Evening News"-collectively lured nearly 22 million viewers per night, according to Nielsen Media Research. Does that number pale against data from 15 years ago? Sure. But it's an apples-vs.-oranges comparison, given the rise of the Internet and expansion of the cable news universe.

"The evening news is still the biggest source of daily news in the country," Steve Capus, president of NBC News, says flatly. "No newspaper or Web site comes close."

The broadcast newscasts have much else going for them, say their media-community boosters and network executives. They laud the uncluttered environment (as opposed to the graphic flourishes and screen-bottom crawls of cable counterparts) and reliable regular format. "When you buy the evening news broadcast, you know what you're going to get," says Jo Ann Ross, president-network sales at CBS.

While critics describe evening viewers in unflattering terms-They're old! They're set in their ways! They won't buy iPods!-where else can this loyal, educated and affluent audience be reached so dependably? "You look at the numbers and demos, and it's not a bad audience. It's just 50-plus," shrugs Peter Gardiner, partner-chief media officer at Deutsch, New York. "Lots of products don't target that audience."

Therein lies the problem. No matter how much media buyers might admire the evening newscasts, they seem averse to recommending that any company plying its trade outside the pharmaceutical, healthcare, insurance or automobile industries advertise there. Even within those latter three businesses, buyers only see a finite number of products that are a solid fit.

"The [evening news] broadcasts are the domain of the pharmaceutical companies now," says Chris Geraci, director-national TV at OMD, New York. "There's nothing wrong with that and I'm not trying to be disparaging, but you go where the target audiences are."

One of those pharmaceutical marketers offers a somewhat lukewarm endorsement of the evening news broadcasts. "The evening news plays an important part in both our broadcast and overall media strategy," Mike Kleha, associate director-media services at Merck & Co., says in e-mailed responses to a handful of questions.

However, responding to a query about the fairness of comments concerning declining viewership and aging audiences, Mr. Kleha adds: "While the comments are valid, I think the network news evening broadcasts are still very relevant to certain audiences and will probably remain so, at least in the near term. That being said, I think the daypart needs to evolve such that the criticisms do not become terminal."

As for addressing those issues, the Big 3 networks have moved aggressively to make evening news content available on other platforms. All offer wireless alerts, "news to go" doodads and other tie-ins online and off; NBC streams its entire broadcast on MSNBC.com and allows viewers to play executive producer by arranging segments in whatever order they choose.

"That kind of thinking in the past would have gotten me assassinated by the affiliate board," Mr. Capus jokes. "But you need to find a way for the newscast to branch out, to reach people who aren't necessarily home at 6:30."

NBC hopes to see this strategy pay off in the form of a slow migration to "Nightly News" by younger viewers, most of whom have digested their news long before suppertime, courtesy of the Internet.

"Every time Brian Williams blogs, I believe he's reaching a different audience than we're reaching at 6:30," Mr. Capus says. "Somewhere in that pool of people are people who will become comfortable with Brian and NBC, and hopefully turn to us when they have a choice, like on election night or during coverage of a big news event."

TIME SLOT PROBLEM

While Mr. Capus and Ms. Ross have heard the bleatings about how marketers would love to see the evening news attempt to attract that younger audience, they briskly dismiss the idea of youth-oriented tweaks to the shows.

"We feel there could be upside in a couple of the demos that maybe will come to the show to see Katie," Ms. Ross says. "But what advertisers really want is consistency and a demonstrated commitment to outstanding journalism."

Pundits agree. "This should almost be a non-issue by now. News programming has never ever been watched in great numbers by young people," notes Carl "Bud" Carey, associate professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Adds Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Initiative North America, Los Angeles: "If the younger audience isn't there to watch [the evening news], why reinvent it for them?"

That brings it back to Ms. Couric. Heading into the upfront, network and agency executives expect her eventual presence to have minimal impact in the way the evening news is pitched and sold. "Until she proves she's brought a significantly different audience to the program, I don't see too much changing. It's not as if people are expanding budgets due to this," says Ed Gentner, senior VP-group director, visual investment and activation group at MediaVest, New York.
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