It is no secret that at both ABC and CBS, corporate management has pushed news management to make deals with CNN that would get them out from under the very high costs and—in some years—the losses involved in maintaining the highly paid staffs and expensive facilities needed to produce the evening newscasts. So far, the talks have come to nothing because the networks have union contracts and CNN doesn’t, and that makes it nearly impossible to share resources. One alternative that has been discussed is to get around the union barriers by licensing CNN to produce an evening newscast for a network, for a fee that would be less than what the network spends to maintain its own staff and facilities.

Another alternative is to simply abandon the evening news business, while continuing to produce magazine programs and possibly the morning program, for a decent profit. It doesn’t require a big, expensive news gathering infrastructure to implement that option.

Neither of these alternatives has been palatable up to now, in large part because no corporate boss looks forward to losing prestige and risking a public-relations beating. But a corporate business decision to gut the evening newscast becomes even less likely if the three broadcasts continue to differentiate themselves, maintain or expand their audiences, and draw closer to each other in the ratings race—so that none of them is an easy target.

That’s good news. Does it justify some measure of optimism, over the long term?

After years of sharp audience declines, the total audience for the three broadcasts went up by more than 600,000 viewers last year. Still, that increase is being eroded (and could even be wiped out) this year. And while the demographic group that has always been most likely to watch the network newscasts—those over 55—is growing faster than any other age group, it’s also possible to make the conventional argument that the older audience doesn’t matter, and that the evening newscasts are ultimately doomed because younger generations are not watching—that they are comfortable getting the news they want from the Web and various mobile technologies.

But young people never watched the evening news in large numbers, even when the total evening news audience was much bigger. The hope always was, and is, that as they age into the fast-growing pool of older viewers, some of them will appreciate the credibility and convenience of the evening news—just like some of their parents and grandparents. That will help maintain the size and commercial viability of the evening news audience, which is much underappreciated by those who predict the demise of the evening broadcasts.

The truth is, no one knows. for now, the three newscasts are more tightly bunched in the competition for an audience that is still substantial. But the evening broadcasts are no longer a protected species, and they are doing what they need to do to survive. And at a time when all established news organizations face unprecedented challenges, and anyone with access to the Web can claim to be delivering news, the survival of institutions with traditions of excellence is a good thing. 

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Paul Friedman is the Professional in Residence at the Quinnipiac School of Communications. Over a span of 40 years, he worked at all three network news divisions, including positions as senior producer of NBC Nightly News, executive producer of Today, executive producer of ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and executive vice president of CBS News.