Monday, August 08, 2005

Topping the News
The AP's David Bauder has filed another story on Peter Jennings, this one speculating on the future shape of network TV news in the long term, and on Jennings' replacement in the short term. Front-runners for the anchor chair, according to Bauder, are the two reporters who have been sitting in for Jennings since he left in April, Charles Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas. Gibson was considered a possible replacement for Jennings even before he returned to Good Morning America a few years ago. As for Vargas, former GMA news anchor, Bauder says, she "lacks Gibson's experience but could attract some younger viewers." (She's 42.)

C'mon, Dave. That's supposed to be the wisdom of a seasoned observer, but it's crap, and it's revealed as such by your next sentence: "The evening news, a tradition born at a time when evening newspapers were important, has one of television's oldest audiences."

The networks cannot reverse the 20-year slide in the relevance of the evening news simply by putting a different face in the anchor chair. The paradigm has long since shifted, and it ain't shifting back. You may have heard that Al Gore's TV network, Current TV, launched last week. It's an experiment in messing with the form of TV news, presenting "pods" of information meant to go down in quick bites. And that underlines the problem the major networks face. They can't mess with the form all that much, as long as they remain locked into 30 minutes at suppertime (6:30 in the east, 5:30 Central.) In addition, no matter what else they do, there are certain demographic realities the networks simply can't change. The audience is fragmented by a gazillion channels--the days when most TVs got only three channels and most people had to watch news at 5:30 are long gone. An entire generation--the younger viewers a younger anchor is supposed to magically attract--has grown up unable to remember a time when news wasn't available on demand via cable. Kids in high school today can barely remember a time when it wasn't available on demand via the Internet. As Bauder notes, nightly news viewership remains around 25 million, but that's down something like a third in 10 years, and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to decline, no matter who the networks put into the anchor chairs.

I'm sure Elizabeth Vargas is a fine reporter, a talented broadcaster, and a quality human being, but unless she's going to do the news topless, she's likely not to reverse the slide, either. Network TV's primary customer base is shrinking. Demographic reality means that there will be no magic switch in preference once the customers reach a certain age. At some point, the demand for the product will no longer be able to support the cost of manufacturing it, and the product will become obsolete. It happened to elevator-music radio, it happened to the Oldsmobile--and it's happening to the network evening news.

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