Dobrow Is Old, but Still Not Old Enough for Evening News

Media Reviews for Media People: Network Newscasts

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2008 will go down in the Larrypedia as the year in which I got old. A few stray silver streaks now dot my mane. Loud restaurants agitate me. I can't handle hangovers without the aid of Pedialyte or elephant tranquilizers.
Of the three major network newscasts, the measured pacing and quirk-free tone of NBC's offering, featuring Brian Williams, stood out.
Of the three major network newscasts, the measured pacing and quirk-free tone of NBC's offering, featuring Brian Williams, stood out. Credit: NBC Universal

Oh, but it gets worse. I have come to enjoy Billy Joel records nonironically. I recently found myself pricing nostril-hair trimmers (I recommend the Panasonic ER411 for its combination of value and versatility). I'm probably three weeks away from sending my first aggrieved letter to the editor.

And still, with one flip around my cable dial last week, I realized I ain't dead yet. Thank you, network news broadcasts, for reminding me that my tastes remain decidedly mod, at least when it comes to information acquisition.

It's trite to yammer about how the ABC, CBS and NBC nightly newscasts appeal only to older viewers, about how the stories they highlight are stale by the time they reach the air. Alas, just because it may be cliche doesn't make it untrue. So, once more: The broadcasts all cover the same exact stories, usually in the same linear manner. They offer little that can't be found earlier elsewhere by viewers who have access to the web, CNN/Fox/MSNBC or a well-read fleet of carrier pigeons.

At the same time, the newscasts aren't given enough credit for the numerous things they do well, specifically: their appeal to smarthead and nudnik alike; their ability to condense a day's worth of news into a tidy 22-minute bundle; and their skill in providing context within that tiny temporal window. We get so caught up in parsing the slipping ratings and arriving at "step aside, old man" conclusions that we ignore the obvious: that the network news folks are still quite proficient at their jobs.

For this exercise, I watched or DVRed all three of the news broadcasts on Monday night (since I can record "only" two shows at once, I viewed CBS on the web). What I learned is that each newscast is produced with the highest degree of care and professionalism -- and that each strikes me as quaint, mild and redundant. Many of us spend our workdays inhaling vast quantities of information. By the time 6:30 rolls around, we've already pieced together on our own most of what a news recap can tell us.

If I were to ally myself with a single network-news camp -- this scenario presumes that I have spent the preceding 92 hours in a media-isolation chamber, armed with only a thermos of coffee and an oil lamp -- it would be that of NBC and its so-wry Brylcreem enthusiast Brian Williams. On a night when the three broadcasts surveyed the same stories in roughly the same order (tax-rebate checks, energy woes, Obama's pastor, Miley Cyrus' half-naked torso of indecorous lust inducement), NBC's measured pacing and quirk-free tone stood out.

Williams deserves much of the credit for this. He boasts the gravitas we've been conditioned to expect from our network anchors, yet he never overplays the world-in-peril drama. Meanwhile, it bears mentioning that NBC was the only network that trotted out a sleek correspondent babe on Monday night: Trish Something-or-Other, whose report on tax-rebate checks prompted me to wonder whether she'll use the mini-windfall to pay down her lip-gloss debt.

The ABC broadcast I caught featured George Stephanopoulos subbing for Charlie Gibson, and it's to the network's credit that its B-team personality measures up well against the other first-liners. What I liked most about ABC's offering, frankly, is that there was more of it: The show kicked off by acknowledging Pfizer as its sole sponsor, which meant only a single midshow commercial break. The extra four minutes allowed the net to touch on topics ignored or downplayed on other channels: a California wildfire here, a proposed United/US Airways merger there.

Then there's CBS, whose network-news pratfalls have endured more scrutiny than Angelina's womb. Let me say right up front that I have no problem with Katie Couric as an anchor. I might be in the minority here, but I'm as comfortable receiving my daily dollop o' nooz from a person with a vagina as I'd be receiving a pedicure from a person with a penis. In both cases, plumbing is irrelevant to the discussion, so long as the job gets done. I wouldn't care if Katie chose to open her broadcasts with a stern "Good evening," a chipper "Hi, everybody!" or a Flavor Flav-orful "Kay-Cee in da house, boy-eee!"

That said, the CBS offering comes across as more glib and less substantial than the other two. Perhaps after all the early criticism of the rejiggered-for-Katie broadcast, the network has swung back too far in the other direction. Features such as "The Other America," in which the show shines a light on downtrodden families, come across as ponderous as PBS. It's impossible not to empathize with their circumstances, yet the portraits too often veer into maudlin territory.

The most interesting part of the news-viewing exercise might've been the ads. CBS has attracted younger-aiming brands -- Cadillac and BlackBerry -- to its web broadcast of the nightly news. Master of obvious conclusions that I am, this tells me marketers hold out some hope that younger'uns will gravitate to online re-airings of nightly-news fare, even if they won't commit to a daily 6:30 appointment.

ABC, as noted previously, went the single-sponsor route (Pfizer, with a big ol' Celebrex ad). NBC featured the exact spots one would expect from an older-skewing program: One-a-Day 50 Plus, Aveeno anti-wrinkle balm, Levitra, Spiriva, Caduet (by the way, can we get a moratorium on depictions of oldy-olds in the throes of chaste tangos?). I could make a lively pro-old-person argument here -- they view the world through rose-colored cataracts and have wonderful stories to share, many involving Stan Musial or Adlai Stevenson -- but I doubt marketers want to hear it. So let's all agree to keep confusing text messages and other non-analog contraptions far away from the televised nightly news.

Fairly or not, the three network newscasts have been tagged with the "relic" label, so it's almost pointless to note that each does much more right than it does wrong. Every single person who contributes to these shows should be proud of the work he or she does on a daily basis.

That said, there are plenty of good books that don't get read and plenty of good records that don't get played. It happens. The marketplace is saying, louder and louder every quarter, that it no longer wants its news delivered in 30-minute chunks at precisely 6:30 p.m. At some point, the network news divisions will have to admit defeat and refocus their energies elsewhere.

Some people will bemoan the death of nightly network news as the 734th horseman of the lowbrow apocalypse, right between backyard-wrestling videos and "Paradise Hotel 2." Most others, after basking in the Katie Couric schadenfreude, won't even notice it's gone. Western civilization will likely survive the loss.
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