There’s a lot at stake. The three network newscasts have lost enormous chunks of their audience in recent years, due to harsh demographic realities: Their viewers are dying off, and younger consumers haven’t established the same news habits as their elders. Then there’s the fractionalization of the marketplace, brought about by the proliferation of cable news outlets, on-demand Internet news sites, and social media optimized for quick, mobile consumption. Where news consumers once had only a handful of options, their choices now are virtually unlimited, and they can mix and match the news they want to see. Even so, network news remains formidable. Together, the three network newscasts still attract more than 23 million viewers every weeknight—almost a third of the people watching television at 6:30 in the evening. Each broadcast has an audience bigger than any other single source of news.
In fact, with all the attention given to cable news, it’s worth noting that even the lowest-rated network newscast alone has an audience more than two-and-a-half million people larger than the combined audiences of the 6:30 news programs at Fox News, CNN, HLN, MSNBC, and CNBC. The problem is that, according to network research, more than 80 percent of their viewers say they have “seen the news” (on cable, on local television, on the Web, via social media, in newspapers) before the network newscasts air. If they are to keep viewers, or gain new ones, the network newscasts cannot afford to be seen as “more of the same.” They must offer more than a recitation of the day’s events, which viewers may feel they already “know.”
In the golden age of network newscasts, 90 percent of the people watching television at 6:30 p.m. were watching “the news.” With virtually no news competition, and working in the tradition of serious newspapers and radio broadcasters, all three TV networks aired broadcasts that dealt with “important news,” lightened only by a “kicker” at the end. There was little hesitation about forcing viewers to “eat their spinach,” and not much debate about whether viewers should be given what they “needed to know” or what they wanted (which was presumed to be less important). Producers and editors spent a lot of time worrying about whether their selection of stories would match up to the next morning’s New York Times. Which newscast you watched depended almost entirely on which local television station you were watching when the news came on, and whether you liked Walter Cronkite better than Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, or Peter Jennings better than Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw. Until relatively recently, it was possible to complain that all three networks were doing essentially the same broadcast.
Brian Williams remembers it as “the kind of groupthink image that for years we all know existed, where you looked at all three monitors and sometimes shot for shot, stride for stride, it’s as if we Xeroxed the first bloc and sent it across town and said, ‘Okay, so we’re in agreement this is what we’re going to do tonight.’ ”
Actually, the groupthink started at the beginning of television news, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Its earliest practitioners admired serious newspapers and radio news, and their corporate leaders were under pressure from Congress to broadcast “in the public interest.” So they wanted the evening newscasts (along with documentaries and political convention and election coverage) produced by their news departments to be demonstrations of sober intent, as opposed to the comedies and variety hours produced by the entertainment departments. (Reuven Frank, the innovator responsible for the Huntley-Brinkley Report and later the president of NBC News, used to say, “A lot of newspapers have comics sections. The networks are comics with newspaper sections.”) As long as the three networks operated in a universe of enormous audiences and limited competition, they could afford to feed viewers the spinach of “important” news. If it all looked the same, it didn’t matter. The networks were delivering the news—generally the same stories in the same order, giving them similar weight.
But the news has changed. now it’s a rare night when all three networks cover the same stories. As Williams put it, “It’s audibles. It’s electives. It’s some brands trying to be different. Distinguish themselves. Stand out.”
It is still true that the anchors are, for most viewers, what makes one program stand out from another, perhaps more than ever. “These newscasts are almost entirely a function of the anchors,” Sherwood says. “And it’s misplaced to over-interpret the changes that producers are making.”