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Thursday, July 20, 2006 | Katie Couric becoming the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” doesn’t say so much about Katie Couric as it does the evening news at CBS, at NBC, and at ABC.

The daily news cycle has experienced three major changes in the last century. In the 1950s, the infant television industry conceived the idea of a network news program, scheduled when people were getting home from work and might be curious enough to know what happened during the day, not only in their town (which they could read in the afternoon newspaper) but from around the nation and the world. Turns out the audience was there, and the concept took hold.

Watching the network evening news took time and interest away from reading the evening paper, driving that business first into decline, then into extinction. This is a lesson much on the minds of media producers today.

Then in the 1970s, Ted Turner had the idea that people might want to check up on the news not just at dinnertime, but all day long. Cable television, becoming commercial at that same time, provided the cut-rate delivery system, and the Cable News Network, CNN, was born, hastening evening newspapers toward their demise and, more significantly, taking some of the edge off the network (CBS, NBC, ABC) evening news programs.

Cable service, with its proliferation of channels, also created “narrowcasting,” in which a channel’s content can be tailored to its niche, such as ESPN, MTV and The Weather Channel. Broadcast media is terribly expensive to produce and deliver, and narrowcast, with its tailored content, brought a dramatic improvement in the efficiency of broadcast in connecting favored advertisers with their target audiences. By the 1990s, news producers were dabbling in narrowcast shows based on news and were guided by audience response toward programs on which the news of the day was discussed by familiar names who were willing to yell at each other.

By the turn of the century, it was clear that the World Wide Web represented a true revolution in broadcast history by establishing a unique relationship between an advertiser and a consumer. Not only that, the ultimate one-to-one business model, the holy grail of marketing, was also incredibly inexpensive. By 2006, it is possible for news providers and analysts great and small, to connect with consumers globally for as little as $19.95 a month. At any moment during any day, a consumer can log onto the provider of his choice, including The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and, yes, CBS, and get the news almost as it happens.

This third major event has not changed the daily news cycle so much as eliminated it. We are looking at a preview of what will happen to “prime time” in a few more years. “Prime time” will disappear, swallowed by a media that no longer has to make its customers wait for content, like cars in a passing train, but can log into their content whenever they want to, at any time. “CSI” will be on when you want it to be on.

Today, customers are drifting away from the “CBS Evening News,” and the NBC and ABC products, because they have already seen it. It is like watching a replay, and who, in the juggernaut 21st century, has time for that?

Katie Couric would make a great, fresh, progressive, evening news anchor, who actually might draw in a decent number from the younger demographics. But they wouldn’t be there for the news. The time of the anchor has passed. Some old geezers (you can prove it by the advertising offered), who don’t understand or hate the Web, still watch the evening news, and they still even get some news from it, but it has become sad to watch, even nostalgic, like remembering what it was like to read an evening newspaper.

The news cycle doesn’t need an anchor for its day. The networks could probably shut down their evening news programs completely, so progressively has it faded from the viewer mindset. Or they could change the program’s direction – they still draw a Nielsen Rating of 10, darn it – toward the model that so long ago was represented by the – gulp – evening paper. The evening paper had some news in it, but it was heavy on features, hard (based on the morning’s news) and soft (culture, celebrities, warm and fuzzy stories).

Who best to preside, on-air, over this new direction? Somebody like Katie Couric. Is this the experiment we are about to see? If so, it will be a passing of eras, and it will be interesting to watch.

Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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