by Dan Kennedy

Angst and network news go together like -- oh, like Simon and Garfunkel, whose popularity peaked around the same time that Walter Cronkite was signing off with the comforting fiction "that's the way it is." For more than a quarter of a century, the audience for the three evening network newscasts has been both shrinking and aging -- leading to widespread speculation that, someday, television news as we know it will cease to exist. Lately, though, angst has given way to full-scale, hyperventilating, stampede-the-exit-doors panic.

At CBS News, whose "Tiffany network" reputation has been little more than a bitter joke since the 1980s, Cronkite's successor as anchor of the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather, was hustled into retirement in March. Rather's departure came not long after he'd been harshly criticized by an internal investigation into last fall's flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report about George W. Bush's National Guard service. His replacement, Bob Schieffer, is a capable, comforting presence; but he's 67, looks at least 10 years older, and is no one's idea of a long-term solution. CBS president Leslie Moonves has vowed to reinvent the newscast, and is bandying about ideas ranging from multiple anchors to a role for comedian Jon Stewart.

ABC News, the ratings and quality leader not so long ago, has been shaken to its core in recent weeks. First, Ted Koppel, anchor of the late-night news program Nightline, announced that he would leave at the end of this year. Then, Peter Jennings, anchor of the network's World News Tonight, revealed that he has lung cancer and will need a substantial amount of time off while he's undergoing treatment. Koppel, a brilliant interviewer, may be the only television journalist of his generation to rank with the likes of CBS legends Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. Jennings -- cool, deft, serious -- has long enjoyed a reputation as the most cerebral of the network anchors.

Only NBC News appears to have weathered the anchor storms in good shape. Late last year the network pulled off a seamless transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News, and has maintained its lead in the ratings. Williams, 46, and the omnipresent Washington-bureau chief and Meet the Press host, Tim Russert, 54, are young enough to be around for a while. The news division can spread its costs across two cable networks (MSNBC and CNBC) and Today, which enjoys the best ratings of the three network morning shows. (CBS News, which lacks a cable outlet, has long been thought to lust after a deal with CNN. ABC News announced recently that it will launch a digital cable channel.) But even NBC is not immune from the long-term cultural changes and media trends that threaten the entire genre of network newscasts.

It's true that, with as many as 30 million viewers tuning in to one of the three evening newscasts on a big news night, network news remains the closest thing we've got to a mass news medium. But according to Nielsen Media Research, only about 36 percent of households are watching -- around half as many as a generation ago. Moreover, the networks insist on broadcasting their evening newscasts at 5:30 pm (and 6:30 pm on the East Coast), a time when most people are driving home from work (if they're not still working), eating dinner or helping the kids with their homework. The result: The average evening-newscast viewer is in his or her late 50s or early 60s, a demographic reality borne out by the ads for adult-incontinence protection, denture adhesives and various types of medicine. "Without the prescription-law change 10 years ago" -- that is, a change that allowed drug companies to advertise products available only by prescription -- "these shows would have been gone," says Michael Socolow, director of journalism at Brandeis University and a former assignment editor for CNN.

Nor have viewers gravitated to PBS (The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, admirably serious if duller than any television newscast ought to be, is shown at 6 pm) or the not-so-wonderful world of 24-hour cable news, which was originally touted as a news junkie's dream come true. Compared with the network newscasts, cable audiences are tiny -- even for the ratings leader, Fox News. Moreover, with a prime-time emphasis on talk over news (talk, you see, is cheap; news is expensive), the three major cable news networks -- Fox, CNN and MSNBC -- are simply not a serious alternative to anything. CNN's NewsNight with Aaron Brown has long been the closest thing to a network-level cable newscast, but lately it appears to be getting caught up in new network president Jonathan Klein's obsession with "storytelling" (and ratings). MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann has its moments, but the format (yes, it's a countdown!) is contrived. And Fox's prime-time lineup -- The O'Reilly Factor, Hannity & amp; Colmes, and On the Record with Greta Van Susteren -- is a three-hour wallow in shouting and tabloid trash.

Thus, more than 50 years into the television era, television news is at a strikingly low ebb. The medium that defined the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the first human steps on the moon has become an outlet for the elderly and the lonely. Yet broadcast news is actually as healthy as it's ever been. It's just that it's gone low-tech.

Every week, somewhere between 23 million and 29 million Americans tune in to National Public Radio. In the apples-and-oranges world of television and radio ratings, it's hard to know precisely how to compare TV's daily numbers with radio's weekly audiences. But there seems to be little question that NPR is now the second-largest broadcast news source in the United States, still trailing the network newscasts, but catching up rapidly -- and far ahead of the cable news shows upon which media critics regularly dump barrels of ink.

NPR's audience has at least doubled in the past decade. The only radio program with a larger audience than NPR's two drive-time newscasts -- Morning Edition and All Things Considered -- is Rush Limbaugh's talk show. The NPR audience tends more toward middle age than youth; in the past year or so, for instance, I've heard Lyle Lovett and, just last week, John Prine come on ATC to plug their latest CDs. But that's still a lot younger than the network news audience. And whereas the television news audience is shrinking because it defies cultural trends, the public-radio audience is growing along with those trends.

In a media culture bogged down by charges of liberal (and, increasingly, conservative) bias, NPR largely succeeds in satisfying the broad middle -- something even conservatives might realize if they'd listen. After all, Fortune 500 companies and other big underwriters would pull out if right-wing sneers about NPR's being "Radio Managua" (to cite a chestnut from the 1980s) had any truth to them.

My point isn't that NPR is better than the network newscasts. Rather, it is that NPR reaches people where they are -- in their cars, at home packing up lunches or making dinner or while they're working. Television demands that you look and listen, and, in the case of the network broadcasts, that you do so during a narrow, inconveniently timed half-hour opening. Radio accommodates the multitasking society we have increasingly become. Consider: According to the US Department of Transportation, the number of workers commuting by private vehicle more than doubled, from 43 million to 97 million, between 1960 and 2000. Between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of workers commuting more than 45 minutes one way rose from 11 percent to 15 percent, and that of workers commuting less than 15 minutes dropped from 34 percent to 28 percent. What do they have to do when they're stuck in traffic other than listen to the radio?

People are working harder, too. According to the American Sociological Association, the average number of hours that men (43.1) and women (37) work every week actually dropped slightly between 1970 and 2000. But the rise of two-earner and single-parent households means that there is less time and more pressure at home than was the case in the stereotypical 1950s and '60s household, with a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Sociologists Kathleen Gerson, of New York University, and Jerry Jacobs, of the University of Pennsylvania, have written, "Even if the length of the work week had not changed at all, the rise of families that depend on either two incomes or one parent would suffice to explain why Americans feel so pressed for time." They note, for example, that the combined work week of two-earner households rose from 53 to 63 hours between 1970 and 2000. There's just no time on the schedule for a half-hour with the network news.

Weirdly enough, NPR's funding base is more secure than that of networks news, too. Though nominally a government service, public radio, starting in the Reagan era, has become largely privatized, living off listener contributions and corporate-underwriting announcements that sound more and more like commercials. NPR is also flush with a $236 million endowment from Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc. The public stations that subscribe to NPR -- including Boston's WBUR and WGBH (89.7 FM) -- also receive most of their money from listeners and underwriters.

By contrast, the major networks are now all owned by corporate conglomerates: ABC is part of Disney, NBC is a subsidiary of General Electric and CBS is an arm of Viacom. These conglomerates are invariably more interested in squeezing profit out of the bottom line than they are in reporting the news. And with cable and satellite channels increasingly taking audience share away from the networks, the very advertising model on which they depend is now threatened. The result, according to the American Journalism Review: Whereas the major networks once staffed bureaus around the world, today NPR's 14 foreign bureaus outnumber those of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

"If you are a thinking person looking for the most intelligent coverage of world and national news in America, you would have to put public radio at the top of the heap. It has taken over the reign in broadcasting that institutions like CBS used to have," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "Broadcasting's crowning achievement at this point, in terms of the news, is far and away public radio."

It is more than a little strange that, for serious news, radio would be ascending and television would be in decline. Televised images can be incredibly compelling. Think of September 11, the opening days of the war in Iraq, the tsunami or the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Television isn't particularly good at context, at telling you what those images mean. But we are visual creatures, and it seems a little weird that we are increasingly turning to radio, the medium by which Edward R. Murrow informed our parents and our grandparents about the bombing of London during World War II.

How much has the network-news world changed? Michael Socolow, of Brandeis, observes that in 1972, Daniel Schorr delivered a report on Watergate for the CBS Evening News that had the Nixon administration "apoplectic." Yet the trial of Pol Pot played out not on World News Tonight, but on Nightline -- a more prestigious show watched by a more elite audience. Similarly, Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes delivered their flawed report about President Bush's National Guard service not on the CBS Evening News but on 60 Minutes Wednesday, which, even though its audience is of roughly the same size (approximately eight million viewers), has more viewers who are demographically desirable to advertisers and which enjoys the benefit of more promotional buzz. "The people who watch TV from 8 to 11 pm are not the Geritol and Depends users," says Socolow.

What will the networks do? Rather himself has talked about a promising model: instead of a half-hour at 6:30 pm, why not try a one- or two-hour mixture of news and features during prime time? Or perhaps one of the three major networks will drop news altogether on the theory that cable and the Internet have made the 6:30 ritual obsolete.

Robert Thompson, of Syracuse, likes to point out that the post-network era has actually been with us for a long time. Rather, Jennings and Brokaw never commanded the kind of monolithic audience that Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley did a generation earlier. (Huntley and Brinkley worked together at NBC; ABC was not a factor in those days.) "I keep hearing this clich & eacute; 'the end of an era,' but the end of an era happened a long time ago," Thompson says. CNN came along in the early '80s; the Internet, Fox and MSNBC splintered the news audience still further in the '90s.

As an institution, the evening newscasts haven't been around all that long -- since the early 1960s, really, when the networks expanded their newscasts from 15 to 30 minutes. If they ceased to exist in their current form, what of it? Each era gets the news it wants. NPR may well be the medium of choice for an era that needs its news to be portable, multitask-friendly and easy to integrate into a work-intensive culture.

Dan Kennedy is the media critic for the Boston Phoenix, where this story first appeared.

Publication date: 04/21/05

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