Free Markets, Free People

network news

Network news circling the drain?

The NYT, a member of another news venue with serious problems, carries an article today about the problems network news faces.  Network news is differentiated from cable news as news shows carried by the traditional big 3 networks (at a certain time) as opposed to cable/satellite TV networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) that cover the news 24/7.

As James Joyner says: “So what?”  It’s not like “news” is going away.

There is certainly nothing sacrosanct about network news, and certainly while lamenting the passing of an semi-old tradition, there’s nothing really being lost here in terms of news delivery if they do close up shop.  Things change and evolve.  That’s what is happening with network news.

Look, I’m one of those guys who remember watching Chet Huntley and David Brinkley each night with my dad.  That’s how far back I go.  But you have to remember that those guys supplanted radio news as the primary source for Americans.  And Movietone newsreels shown at movie houses also went down the tubes because of them.  But today, the delivery of news has evolved from appointment TV (you have to be there when they’re ready to present the news) to 24/7 “the news is ready when your are” TV. 

Which do you suppose makes more sense to the viewer?  News when they want it or news when the network wants to present it?

In fact I’m rather surprised to see network news has survived as long as it has.  I can tune into CNN headline news and essentially get the same thing – a half hour round up of the top stories of the day – whenever I choose to do so.  And if I want in-depth coverage, I certainly don’t wait to watch network news or for the newspaper to show up – I google it.

For the networks, reality has finally reared its ugly head:

The economic problems facing ABC News and CBS News in many ways mirror those faced by newspapers, which have been similarly afflicted by a drop in advertising revenue. The reaction — severe cuts in personnel and other costs — also looks to be the same.

But can you shrink your way to prosperity? Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News who is now a news media consultant (NBC News is one client), said of the ABC cuts: “The real issue after this is what is going to drive growth? How do you generate more profit? And this doesn’t address that.”

The networks are mostly vehicles of entertainment. And in the past, when there were no alternatives, network news was a profit center. It no longer is a profit center. So what ABC and CBS (NBC has MSNBC and CNBC so they’re not quite in the same boat) have to decide is whether the “tradition” of their news services are worth preserving and paying for with profits from the entertainment side, or whether it is all about profit and non-profitable enterprises have to be dropped.

My guess is they’ll finally decide on the latter. Not because they’re necessarily cheap or don’t want to preserve tradition. No, instead they’re going to realize that even if they do preserve their news operation it won’t bring in any more viewers than it does now. The habit of “appointment TV” is forever broken and people are no longer going to arrange their lives around the time CBS or ABC chooses to present the news when they have so many other more appealing choices available.

Time to pull the plug, boys.