Thursday, August 24, 2006

Brian Williams Wants To Stay The Course. Does He Know Something We Don't?

In this week's New York Observer, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams opines:

"Walter Cronkite called us a headline service. He called us the supplement to a good daily newspaper. Well, add to that a good selection of Web sites and other sources of information and he’s still right.”

Agreed. But that's part of the problem plaguing the network newsies. Williams is staying the course as far as his broadcast is concerned, easy enough to do when you're number one. But he's at the top of an ever-shrinking heap, even if it still contains 9 million or so viewers.

At one extreme is Williams' status quo. On the other end is the "destroy the village in order to save it" approach. It's broke, let's fix it, and hope for the best. Katie Couric and CBS aren't striving for that radical a show-ectomy when she hits the airwaves again in two weeks. But she's sending visible smoke signals that business will not be as usual, a sound strategy when you're running a solid third in the Nielsens.

Still, the time may well come a lot sooner than later for Williams & Co. to embrace a new reality, if Couric's ratings don't do that for him. Some of the operative words in the above quote are "headline service" and "daily newspaper."

To be sure, a lot of the audience these newscasts are after -- as opposed to the graybeards and retirees who now make up most of the viewers -- have been surfing the Web checking headlines and news updates from any number of sites, which will provide a helluva lot more depth and context than one 23-minute newscast.
As for daily newspapers, sure 58 million of them are still sold every day. But that number keeps dropping every year, and fewer of us have the time to sit down and read more than a few stories. The rest we scan or skip entirely. Tragic but true.
So, the mission of the network news shows -- on days when there is not a momentous news event that consumes all coverage -- is an anachronism whose time is gone. Couric realizes this. Williams will eventually have no choice but to follow suit.

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