What Will It Be Like to Run ABC News?

Tuning In: When Network News Departments Feel Like a 'Survivors Club'

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This just in: ABC News got a new leader today, but Ben Sherwood's tenure at the helm of this venerable institution might not be as storied and fascinating as his resume.

Ben Sherwood
Ben Sherwood Credit: ABC
Why? There's no reason to take anything away from Mr. Sherwood's credentials -- he's a former executive producer of ABC's powerhouse "Good Morning America," not to mention a former senior producer at "NBC Nightly News" when Tom Brokaw was anchor. He's also the best-selling author of "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud," and recently extended one of his book concepts -- "The Survivors Club" -- into an online resource center and support network for people facing adversity, even making the site part of a partnership with Hearst's digital-media unit.

Yet this man seems like a builder. And that's not necessarily what you get to do at the helm of a network news department these days.

Sure, he'll be setting up efforts to cover the world and the topics relevant to today's audiences. But running ABC News, which suffered a very telling bout of layoffs and transformation talk last spring, will necessarily involve doing more with less.

So he'll be creating and customizing content that streams not only on TVs but also computers and mobile devices; drilling deep on topics that will gain ABC News the attention it deserves, but perhaps not covering every last little thing that pops up on the news wires; and reorganizing staff to attend to the stories and venues that provoke the most response from viewers -- and, perhaps, from advertisers.

It's true that "Nightline" turns in remarkable performances against the late-night talk shows, "Good Morning America" brings in lots of cash from advertisers and Diane Sawyer is a top-notch anchor.

But NBC News can amortize its costs by pumping its info across not only NBC but also MSNBC and CNBC. Cable-news competitors such as CNN are supported by programming fees from subscribers as well as advertising. ABC, like CBS, doesn't enjoy such benefits, which is why rumors about CBS and CNN and ABC News and Bloomberg exploring possible tie-ups continue to bubble up now and again.

Without new revenue sources, suggested the most recent edition of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual "The State of the News Media" report, ABC and CBS are not exactly poised to grow. "ABC News and CBS News have reached a point of seemingly inescapable maturity," the Pew report said, "with large audiences but a revenue model for their content that is not as lucrative as their competitors, with only one broadcast platform to deliver that content on, a platform that is slowly eroding."

Mr. Sherwood's history, however, is that of an entrepreneur, someone who likes to delve into new things and who doesn't mind recreating himself or his mission when circumstances dictate. In his time since leaving ABC News, he's become a freelance journalist and author -- and seen "Charlie St. Cloud" turned into a Zac Efron movie.

He will have to use that interest in letting content evolve from one kind of media into another and make it work at ABC News. But despite his best efforts and obvious enthusiasm for the medium, the economics at hand are likely to make his job a complex one that's less about building and more about making do.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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