Despite their woes, don't bet on extinction of network evening news programs

Wednesday, April 10th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ It's tempting to write off broadcast network evening news programs as relics of another time.

The three evening news shows, which once commanded three-quarters of the TV audience, now claim less than half. Morning shows and cable news are eating away at their relevancy, and their audiences are aging.

Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, each an evening news anchor for two decades, are all nearing or past normal retirement age.

And ABC's recent attempt to replace ``Nightline'' anchor Ted Koppel with David Letterman provided fresh evidence that the giant media companies that own TV networks aren't afraid to threaten news institutions if they see a compelling business interest.

Is a giant tree in the television news business ready to fall?

Don't hold your breath. It would be a mistake to conclude that NBC's ``Nightly News,'' ABC's ``World News Tonight'' or the ``CBS Evening News'' are headed for extinction soon _ even when their current anchors step down.

Simply put, the long-term harm to the networks' owners is likely to outweigh any short-term financial benefit that could be gained by replacing the news with more profitable programming.

And although it's too early to tell whether the steady decline in viewership has ended, more people are actually watching these programs this year than last.

``My view is that the genre is alive and well,'' said Steve Capus, executive producer of ``Nightly News.'' ``What all three of us do is provide an extremely valuable service to the American audience and I think that's going to be in demand for a long time to come.''

The three shows are certainly as competitive as ever. Brokaw and Jennings traveled to the Middle East late last month for the Arab Summit. Rather came a week later _ and his producer chided ABC and NBC in print for sending their anchors home when warfare spun out of control.

The need for a 22-minute summary of the day's news would seem an anachronism now that CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and the Internet all offer news instantly. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center last fall, 53 percent of viewers said cable was their main source of TV news.

Yet each weeknight, more than 31 million people watch a network evening news program. The most popular cable news program, Fox's ``The O'Reilly Factor,'' typically draws nearly 2.1 million viewers a night.

Evening news producers say the existence of cable news has forced them to add depth and context, partly in contrast to the breathless ``news as it happens'' style of cable during the day.

``I always appreciate that we live in a universe with a lot of information,'' said Paul Slavin, executive producer of ``World News Tonight.''

The networks' advantage in offering perspective was on display after Sept. 11, said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who now teaches at George Mason University.

``I worked for CNN,'' Sesno said, ``but I watched the networks every night.''

All of the evening news programs say they are profitable. It's difficult to isolate what is spent on each, since an evening news reporter could also file stories for other broadcasts. In NBC's case, they can file for sister networks MSNBC and CNBC.

Still, there's little question that networks could save money by filling the time slot with game shows or entertainment news instead.

Many analysts say the uproar wouldn't be worth it.

``If you just try to get rid of it, it will make the Koppel thing look very tame,'' said Tom Wolzien, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

The networks' corporate owners _ General Electric for NBC, Viacom for CBS and the Walt Disney Co. for ABC _ all are big players in Washington who frequently seek beneficial legislation or Federal Communications Commission rulings. Eliminating the evening news would damage their arguments that TV networks serve the public interest, Wolzien said.

Sesno agreed. ``From a public-relations point of view and a corporate citizenship point of view, it would be colossally difficult, if not impossible, for any of the networks to dump an evening news broadcast at this point,'' he said.

Two of the three anchors _ Brokaw and Jennings _ face big decisions about their futures with contracts expiring this year.

Although, Brokaw, at 62, is the youngest of the trio, he has mused loudest about leaving. He took most of last summer off, but was rejuvenated by the searing news events since then.

NBC's ``Nightly News,'' which usually tops the ratings, would seem the healthiest of the three broadcasts. Brokaw would have the opportunity to leave while on top.

The ability and willingness of ABC to pay Jennings, 63, is being watched carefully. The network is struggling financially and the Koppel incident made many question Disney's commitment to news. Disney was willing to replace ``Nightline'' with an entertainment show, and hasn't committed to keeping a news show in that time slot for the long term.

``If any one of the three were to close down news altogether, it would be ABC,'' said Andrew Tyndall, owner of ADT Research, which tracks network news content.

ABC, however, has seen the largest increase in viewership over the past year of the three shows. ``World News Tonight'' generally ranks second each week to NBC.

Rather, 70, is last in the ratings. But he's given no indication he's anxious to leave, and he arguably dominates his news division more than the others do.

Likely heirs apparent are in place at each network, though time and other job opportunities can always change that. The lead contenders are thought to be Brian Williams at NBC, John Roberts at CBS and Charles Gibson at ABC, although a shift to Gibson would open a hole at ``Good Morning America.''

Each of the newscasts would change to reflect a new anchor's personality. One idea that's been kicked around for a few years _ to replace the evening news with 10 minutes of headlines at the top of a nightly newsmagazine _ seems unlikely because the newsmagazine genre has been declining in the ratings and it's doubtful a network would commit to one every night in prime-time.

One thing that may change is visibility. The evening news anchor has traditionally been the face of a network's news division, and the first person in the anchor chair on major news events. But when Brokaw leaves, for instance, it's just as likely that NBC would turn to Katie Couric for that role, Tyndall said.

Often overlooked is the importance of the evening news programs to network affiliates, which usually pair them with local news shows. The anchors help give these stations a sense of identity, said Paul Friedman, ABC News executive vice president.

In small or medium-sized cities, you often see billboards advertising local news anchors standing in a picture next to Jennings, Rather or Brokaw.

Brokaw records brief previews of stories on ``Nightly News'' each day for affiliates, and often appears live on New York, Chicago or Los Angeles stations. The appearances promote his broadcast, but also reinforce a link.

``I can't imagine anybody who operates a local station who isn't going to want to say at 6:30 or 7 o'clock, `now we're going to go to somebody for the national and international news,''' said NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

For now, network news executives are buoyed by an increase in viewership for each of the national evening broadcasts this season: up 8 percent for ABC, 3 percent for CBS and 1 percent for NBC.

While the interest in news peaked after Sept. 11, executives say they began seeing the numbers improve around the time of the 2000 presidential election drama.

``The reports of their demise were exaggerated,'' Tyndall said. ``It's not so much that they got stronger. They were always strong, but their strength wasn't recognized. Because they are not the powerhouses they once were, people were writing them off altogether, and that's premature.''