Confusion Abounds as TV News Attempts to Remain Relevant

Originally posted: December 31, 2005

DePauw University Prof. Jeff McCall

When your car breaks down, you don’t call a dentist to fix it. That’s why it was so curious this fall when CBS called on the head of the CBS sports division, Sean McManus, to also become the president of CBS News.

McManus now leads the efforts of CBS News to recapture its place as broadcasting’s legendary news operation. McManus has no experience in journalism. Zero. His entire career has been spent managing television sports. CBS network CEO Les Moonves explained the move to appoint McManus by saying he wanted “a new vision — a new way of looking at the news division.” Hopefully, that new vision doesn’t include scoreboards and cheerleaders.

The situation at CBS is representative of the confusion that appears to pervade the upper echelons of the major network news operations as they try to remain relevant in a changing journalistic landscape. The focus on journalism erodes as the networks try to keep their audiences from shifting to 24-hour cable news channels, the Internet and reruns of “Friends”. The networks are driven to make news more “entertaining” to attract the younger demographics that advertisers seek. Sadly, the only apparent way to get young adults to watch news is to wait 20 years until they are older.

McManus deserves much credit for his sports television management. He negotiated the NFL back to CBS, has kept professional golf largely in the CBS domain and oversees CBS’ high-profile coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, the NCAA tournament could be produced by UPN or PBS and still get great ratings.

McManus acknowledged in a recent report that covering a Super Bowl is not the same as covering an election, but he went on to say he thought there were “more similarities than there are differences.” That might be true from the standpoint of production and technology, but that’s where the similarities end.

The rights to broadcast sports events are negotiated and contracted. Not so for news events. Sports events occur at designated times and places. Not so for news events. Sports events are for entertainment and diversion. News is supposed to be the conversation of a democracy. Ex-jocks and loudmouths can pretty much cover the sporting scene. It takes professional journalists with vision to set the nation’s news agenda.

McManus’ first big challenge is to find a permanent anchor for the “CBS Evening News.” Speculation abounds that CBS might lure Katie Couric from NBC’s “Today Show” to take over as anchor. Although Couric has kept morning audiences happy for 15 years, one must wonder if her chatty, smiley style can translate to a serious news broadcast. It is one thing to keep a morning audience enthralled with a heart-rending chat with the Runaway Bride, but another to win the credibility of a totally different audience in the evening. Can a person who has most often been described as “perky” be the right fit for an evening network news program? McManus and Moonves apparently think so.

At ABC, the new anchor team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff gets going in January. ABC News president David Westin hopes the dual-anchor “Ken and Barbie” approach adapted from local television news can work at the network level. History is not on his side, as evidenced by the double anchor flops of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters at ABC in the 1970s and CBS’ Dan Rather and Connie Chung in 1993. Westin defended the double anchor setup recently, saying, “You need more than one anchor. One person can’t do all of this.” Who knew that Peter Jennings at ABC and Tom Brokaw at NBC were overmatched all of those years?

Many observers believe ABC paired Woodruff, 44, and Vargas, 43, to attract younger viewers to the news. Note to network execs: Anchors in their 40s are still considered old to the young audience.

Westin plans to get his new anchors out into the field frequently to cover the big stories in person. “It always adds a lot of extra weight to a story if the anchor is there on site,” he says. This statement further underscores the confused state of the television news world. There was a time when the “weight” of a significant news event was measured by its value as news. Now stories become big because of the presence of a network news anchor.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University

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