Problems of TV network news are more than DiCaprio can fix

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Underlying the tiny but telling tempest over the Leonardo DiCaprio affair at ABC News is the inexorable march of demographics. Put bluntly, the viewers of TV news are dying out. And news programmers, whose interest in the status quo is more vested than a union retiree's in his pension fund, are incapable of any but the most ham-fisted, doomed-to-failure responses.

To recap the hullabaloo: For some two weeks, ABC's news division, long the gold standard in network nonfiction, has been roiling over the decision to send the fatuous, unaccomplished but undeniably pretty star of "Titanic" to interview President Clinton for a special on global warming.

When word of the White House meeting broke internally, ABC News went into uproar mode with news vets, usually unnamed, blasting division Chairman David Westin in the press for blurring the line between news and entertainment--a particularly sore subject at the Disney-owned network.

It only worsened when ABC dissembled, claiming the White House summit wasn't a sit-down interview exactly but a walk-through--thus establishing a new posture rule for distinguishing entertainment from journalism.

Westin is the Mark Willes of broadcast news--an outsider to the culture, distrusted by the fraternity, and the subject, almost from the start of his tenure, of unwanted attention, some of it professional (he killed a news report about pedophiles at Disney World), some of it personal (he carried on an inter-office romance with his head of PR). On Tuesday, after a week of playing Hamlet--publicly contemplating whether to kill the interview and placate his fractious newsies, or to let it live and further lose the confidence of his minions--Westin decided to show some of it.

You've got to feel for the guy. Even a cursory glance at some basic numbers tells you that on network TV, news is going nowhere. The most startling statistic was buried inside a recent New York Times piece about the networks' morning-show wars. It turns out that for all the jockeying for position among "CBS Morning News," NBC's "Today" and ABC's "Good Morning America," the median age of the audience for these programs is somewhere between 52 and 56.

To put this in perspective, this means up to half the people watching news shows meant to prepare them for their day at work are retired from the workforce. Or that advertisers seeking to influence brand choice among malleable consumers are hitting a demographic whose only significant remaining brand choice is Metamucil vs. Correctol.

To be fair (which I am not), some of these morning "news" programs are products of network news divisions, while others belong to the entertainment units. And the horrid demos of these shows don't reflect exactly the demographics of all news programs: Some are worse. Yeah, OK, some are better; but the trend is the same: As constituted, network TV news is going to the graveyard.

From that perspective, the DiCaprio assignment made sense--if, that is, you're a middle-aged man trying to figure out how to get these kids today to pay attention, dagnabbit! To any sane professional (and to any child over the age of 14), it would have looked exactly like the baseless pandering it actually was.

The same goes for the cut-rate "downtown" versions of the nets' news magazine programs, whose root assumption is that the union of a blow-dried cutie and a hunky ethnic will somehow magically lure people under 35 back to news. This is only slightly less sad than CBS trying to hip up "60 Minutes II" by hiring as a correspondent the maundering Charlie Rose, whose entire audience (and subject matter) consists of the staff of The New Yorker.

And therein lies the real problem. As a general rule, old men have a terrible record in determining what young people will like. Which is why (a) God still makes young people; and (b) media die. Tinkering with formats and personnel will not change the fortunes of broadcast news. Nor will cursing the insularity of contemporary consumers, who, contrary to caricature, consume massive amounts of news--only not in 30-or 60-minute chunks in front of TVs dominated for decades by political blather, morning chat and Rather, Brokaw and Jennings--packages and men increasingly irrelevant to the new viewer.

Instead of sinking with the star of "Titanic," maybe it's time for broadcasters to give up on news and leave it to the real pros--in cable and print--who remain committed to doing it right.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright April 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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