Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Does Couric's exit spell the end of the Evening News format?

Is the half-hour evening news format dead?  With Katie Couric reportedly leaving the “CBS Evening News” when her contract expires in June, the buzz in the TV news business is that the end is near for the three network newscasts. 

I don't think the format is dead yet because there remains a substantial combined viewership, but if I were Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer, I might be somewhat concerned.  

With no network evening news, where would we go to find the top stories of the day?  Americans are no longer reaching for their newspapers.  And the Internet has plenty of news, but I think we’ve gotten used to having some outlet where we can find the day's events wrapped in a tight package. The absence of news on CBS, ABC and NBC would leave a huge hole.

The network news shows average slightly more than seven million viewers each, with a total of 22 million.  Couric trails the others significantly.  In the coveted demographic of adults 25-54, the programs are drawing only six and a half million people combined. 

By contrast, American Idol last week had 24 million viewers.

That’s a huge difference, but there remains a loyal audience.  Further, what’s offered on cable is limited.  CNN and MSNBC do not offer news in the evenings.  Their programming after 5 p.m. eastern is mostly analysis punctuated by a few headlines.

HLN is the only outlet with a bona fide news broadcast, “Prime News,” at 6 p.m. EST.  Fox has “Special Report,” news (biased as it is) for the first 30 minutes and commentary for the second.

So, either the cable outlets step up or the Big Three continue with their losing newscasts.

Personally, I believe NBC should move Brian Williams to MSNBC (perhaps simulcast on NBC) with a longer form program better suited to his style - headlines with more in-depth reporting and interviews. 

With Williams in place, CBS and ABC could throw in the towel.  They don’t have an outlet analogous to MSNBC, though they could buy one or merge with one, like the struggling CNN. 

It would be sad if there were no place on television for Americans to get their news each night and it’s unlikely that the situation will change anytime soon.  But change in the broadcast television news business is all but certain.

TV Newser and the Daily News have reported that Scott Pelley or Harry Smith is in line to succeed Couric and that the “Evening News” will continue.  I think either of those two choices is weak and that CBS will have to do a lot better to stay in the race.  I still say someone of Anderson Cooper’s stature, or Anderson himself, could be the answer.

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