There are people at all three networks who worry that Sawyer and Sherwood are taking their flagship network newscast downmarket, and even tabloid, in an effort to win the ratings war at any cost. They fear that if ABC is successful, it will put pressure on the other networks to lower their standards. Sherwood rejects that kind of criticism—from people he calls “the high priests of news”—and he says he is mindful of both the “great heritage and tradition of ABC News” and the “desire to win the future.” He argues that all the evening newscasts have used a mix of hard and soft stories and “news you can use” for many years. “Every editor in America is involved in a daily debate over what to put on Page One or what to put on the homepage of the website or to put on the broadcast,” he says. “Every editor in America is engaged in a dialectic over how to deliver what’s important and what’s interesting.”
Williams refuses to criticize his competitors. But he is fully aware that Sawyer’s ratings got closer than ever to his when she began her program one night with a report on the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, while NBC was leading with the economy and politics.
“Hasn’t that always been the dirty little secret that we know that third rail is there?,” Williams says. “We all know exactly where it is and sometimes you have to walk real close to it. I happen to think people don’t tune into the Nightly News to see the Michael Jackson story. There’s a lot we won’t do.”
But if one broadcast “went tabloid” night after night, would it win? “Probably,” Williams sighs. “It’s sitting out there for the taking. Anyone wants to do it, they can do it. And if it results in what everyone fears—a tabloid juggernaut—we’ll be the happiest second-place newscast in the country.”
At CBS, Fager believes “the country is so sick of all the celebrity stuff, which we’re completely drowning in. The same thing with crime; it starts to look the same. If someone said to me, ‘Look Jeff, you have to go downmarket,’ I’d say, ‘Find someone else to do it.’”
No such drama seems imminent. News ratings tend to change slowly, but it appears the ratings race is getting tighter. Season averages (September 2010-May 2011 versus September 2011-May 2012) show that in the first year of head-to-head competition with the current anchors, the CBS Evening News gained 236,000 viewers (+4 percent), while NBC Nightly News lost 429,000 (-5 percent) and ABC World News lost 390,000 (-5 percent). Because NBC lost more viewers than ABC, the gap between them (about a million viewers) is a bit smaller. As a result of its gains and the others’ losses, CBS moved closer to NBC and ABC by more than 600,00 viewers. And executives at ABC see what they hope are signs of a trend that would make the race tighter: Toward the end of the season, World News cut the gap with Nightly News to about half a million viewers in some weeks, and actually beat Nightly News on two nights.
Williams and his program are reliable and credible, and Williams has the advantage of having anchored the evening broadcast the longest. At ABC, words like “downmarket” and “tabloid” seem less relevant than “most watchable.” Many nights, Sawyer offers a satisfying mix of traditional news, soft features, news you can use, and the kind of “guilty pleasure” items that even news snobs are most likely to talk about—whether it’s over that back fence or over cocktails on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Sawyer is a star; the unknowable issue is whether, over the long haul, her style is too over the top for viewers, or whether it’s appealing in the context of a “news lite” broadcast. At CBS, Pelley remains in last place, but he’s gaining back many of the viewers (especially men) who were turned off by Katie Couric.
“What’s exciting right now is that the game’s on,” Sherwood says. “For the first time in a really long time the game’s on.”
As long as the game is on, and the three broadcasts are seen as viable alternatives, there is some protection from the biggest threat to the evening newscasts: being closed down by their corporate parents. The news divisions are understandably skeptical about assurances from their parent companies that news is loved and respected; budget cuts imposed on the news divisions over the last 10 years have left them battered. The corporate argument goes this way: “This is a business, and it makes no business sense to broadcast a program that costs so much money, attracts an audience too small to produce enough revenue, and doesn’t provide anything unique.”