With the recent shuffle in nightly news anchors, media watchers will soon be eagerly poring over ratings, looking for fodder for Charlie-Katie-Brian competition stories. But I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. There is no real competition between the three newscasts. With no significant differences in content or style on ABC, CBS, or NBC, it comes down to whose face we like looking at most between taped segments. Longtime "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt realized this long ago. When he stepped down in 2004, he told PBS's Terrence Smith (also a recent "Outside Voices" contributor) that if you locked three people in rooms with each watching one of the shows, no one would know anything the others didn't know after a year.
This led Hewitt to a radical proposal: the three major networks should merge their news operations. He suggested that each of the three main anchors take turns anchoring, with the other two on the road when they're not at the anchor desk. He thought that would be a way of providing a real public service, while making money at the same time.
Smith responded by saying it was the "the most anti-competitive suggestion" he'd ever heard.
Hewitt said there is no competition under the current setup because the three shows all play it down the middle. They all do the same stories. "It always struck me as a terrible waste of time," he said.
Hewitt is right about the symptoms: there are some nights when the programs have virtually the same stories, in the same order, told in the same ways. The information at the Tyndall Report Web site supports that. Andrew Tyndall tracks the content of the three shows, down to how many minutes each devoted to a topic. For most stories, the chart shows they all devote roughly the same amount of time to the same set of stories.
This does not mean they should give up and combine their newsgathering into one mega-newscast, as Hewitt suggested. Instead, I think the shows should try to become as different from one another as possible.
The first step toward originality would be to turn off all the TV's in the newsroom. Producers love watching the "competition" on a row of monitors while they work, and will note with glee if they air an important story five minutes before another network. But watching each other doesn't create a better product; it creates sameness.
After they turn off the TV's, they should cancel their subscriptions to The New York Times. The paper's great, but it shouldn't be TV's job to read the paper and then steal the feature stories for that evening's newscast (unusual baby names, ABC?)
With nothing to copy off the TV or from the papers, the newscasts then could think about broadening what they cover. They've all fallen into a habit of covering only certain places and issues. I think each show should strive to feature at least one truly original story a night. These stories could come from anywhere in the world, and should serve to provide context to current and future news stories. Why not send one reporter out with the mandate to find truly interesting and important stories that no one else is talking about?
While they're working on widening the scope, why not tweak how they tell stories too? When I was an intern at ABC a few summers ago, in a moment of free time, I pulled some 20- and 30-year-old newscasts to see how different they are from those on today. I was struck by how little the shows have changed. Better graphics and a preview of the show in the first minute are the only significant changes.
Now there is reason to change. There's only so much you can do with the 22 minutes left after commercials, but they could and should play with the format depending on the news of the day. On a slow news day, why not break with convention and show a 10-minute story about, for instance, how life is changing in China. As that country's economy becomes increasingly influential, viewers will already have some context. "60 Minutes" proves that kind of story can get good ratings.
And while they're playing with length, why not try new storytelling techniques too? Reporters should be encouraged to show some of the reporting process in their stories. Viewers can learn a lot about what it's like to be somewhere when we see a reporter en route to meet a source, for instance. That kind of verité reporting could help combat news apathy. Too often, stories feel distant because we don't get a true sense of what it's like to be somewhere.
Even with all this unsolicited advice, I don't think the existing programs are bad. They remain the best showcases of serious television journalism in the country. And there has been some great, unique work on the networks lately. ABC's Jim Sciutto has done a number of good stories on how life differs in various oil-rich countries. He has also covered the economic changes in India and China. That's the kind of reporting that helps the audience prepare for big news stories down the line. NBC hasn't forgotten New Orleans, demonstrating an unusually long attention span for television. CBS's Lara Logan has had compelling stories from Sudan this week that give viewers a better sense of what it's like on the ground there–not to mention Elizabeth Palmer's great reporting from Iran.
We need more, though–not only because this kind of reporting is interesting and important, but also because the evening news must become the place for context-not just headlines. As more content migrates to the Web, stories will increasingly stand alone, and the most interesting and different pieces are the ones viewers will want to share with their friends and family. (The networks will have to adopt YouTube-style sharing if they hope to expand their younger audiences.) I may be one of the last 20-somethings to make time for the evening newscasts. But, with different and more surprising stories, the young will return.