Finding A Way Not To Kill The Newscast In Order To Save It
You want to root for Sean McManus even if you don't envy his position. Having assumed the mantel of chieftain of CBS News in addition to being the big cheese at CBS Sports, he has been charged with elevating The Early Show and the CBS Evening News, both firmly stooped in third place in the Nielsens.
Let's dwell on Evening News (where during my tenure at CBS I filled in now and then as a writer), once the grande dame of broadcast journalism that now more resembles the tomboy who desperately wants to play with the older kids.
And getting older. CBS, like NBC and ABC, face an increasingly grayer audience among the 25 million or so left still tuning into the nightly broadcasts. True, the shows still make money, but ads for Lipitor, Depends and Aleve will only take you so far.
At this point. CBS has nothing to lose by essentially nuking the traditional format and giving viewers a newscast that's largely filled with information they can't get anywhere else or presented in a way so radically different that they will learn something new.
At a time when cable and the Internet provide instant media gratification, that's not only desirable, but essential for survival, not to mention relevance. Toward that end, a few modest proposals:
1) Assume We Already Know Much Of What You Now Tell Us. But at least hit the highlights early on. Do a five-minute whiparound with three or four correspondents summing up the most crucial events people need to know about. Need more time? See below. Right now, Bob Schieffer does some Q&A with correspondents. This format could be adapted more readily and even replace taped pieces.
2) After The Headlines, Stretch Out: Offer up one or two long -- at least in TV terms -- pieces that can offer up more substance than a typical 90-second package can ever hope to achieve. It could be an extended takeout on the big story of the day, e.g. examining the Alito nomination with more than five-second soundbites. It could be the basis for investigative reporting (remember that?), an extended interview with a newsmaker or a combination of all of the above.
3) Redeploy The Troops: All of those correspondents cooling their heels because they can't get pieces on the air because of the headline segment can now dig into some meaty work that can truly inspire great journalism. Right now, too much TV news is merely serviceable work that has the pulp squeezed out of it because producers feel compelled to cram too much into a 22-minute space.
4) Finish Up With Some Commentary: Already, CBS has no shortage of commentators who could be shifted or borrowed from other shows and can provide nifty endpieces. Steve Hartman lost that job when "60 Minutes Wednesday" was axed. Nancy Giles and Ben Stein never fail to be provacative during their stints on "Sunday Morning." And Jon Stewart's just a few blocks away and he's off on Friday. It'd be great to see the likes of Carl Hiaasen lobbing grenades or Dave Barry providing some zing. David Sedaris, call your office.
5) Get Some Sports In The Show -- This should be a "duh" suggestion, given McManus's current position and being the offspring of sportscasting royalty (all hail Jim McKay!). But this is hardly an alien concept, just one that's fallen by the wayside. Heywood Hale Broun routinely contributed sports pieces to CBS broadcasts. Ray Gandolf and Armen Keteyian did the same on the weekend editions of ABC's "World News Tonight." So, why not during the week? There are so many stories of interest to a general audience that have nothing to do with a game, as HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" routinely points out.
Sure, it doesn't hurt to skew younger, just not too young. Don't expect MTV loyalists to drop what they're doing at 6:30 (earlier in other time zones) to see what you've got. It's no sin to cater to their parents. I'd worry, though, if it's only their grandparents who watch.
Anchors? The real toughie. The larger question is, how much does that choice really matter. The Big Three all changed who was in their seats, but the ratings didn't notice. In the end, it may be all about the lead-ins, and in major markets, CBS is often picking up the rear and then some.
One possibility: A rotating cast. Maybe Russ Mitchell one day, followed by a moonlighting "60 Minutes" correspondent the next. John Roberts could parachute in when things are slow at the White House, while Harry Smith or Hannah Storm can make an appearance and cross-promote "The Early Show."
Lots of possibilities. More than anything, what the CBS Evening News needs is patience. McManus has acknowledged that ratings shifts are "glacial" for programs like these. Still, there's always that temptation to panic. But so long as McManus doesn't waver from his belief that the status quo has got to go, CBS has the potential to redefine broadcast news and once again be the leader that it was for well over four decades.
Good night and good luck, Sean.