Don't Kill the Nightly News. Really

The networks still mint money from this hoary format. So why pull the plug?

Does any media form seem quainter than the network's evening newscasts? The entire exercise is suffused with the scent of the long-ago. Its better days beg depiction in black and white: hat doffed, tie loosened, Dad nurses his martini, while Walter Cronkite's baritone rumbles from the Philco. The ratings are declining, we are endlessly reminded. The aged audience keeps getting older. Loudmouths have long demanded to have newscasts put out of their misery. Top media executives have plumbed wholesale reinvention.

But the reasons to keep Brian, Charles, and Katie employed far outweigh the arguments for carting their newscasts off to the charnel house. These reasons have nothing to do with notions of quality and public service, and, please, let's not pretend the evening news is rarely a whole lot more than carefully distilled twaddle. But even if the justification hinges on the perversities of the TV business (and even if I am amazed to type these words), this long-derided half-hour still makes sense.

The first defense newscast partisans invoke almost invariably involves public service, which often segues into the notion that a network news operation is just so terribly complex that you can't hack off one part without crippling the organism. (An eye-roller, this. It recalls the Internet Explorer defense from back when Microsoft (MSFT ) was challenged for embedding that browser into Windows.) What's important is that the newscasts remain profitable, and, according to current and former insiders, still bring in around $100 million—each—in annual ad revenue. The per-viewer cost of advertising for the newscasts, according to one senior media buyer, continues to rise—albeit more slowly than in, say, prime time— illustrating again a classic media paradox. Broadcast audiences diminish. What advertisers pay doesn't.

These ad dollars are not irreplaceable. But consider some logistics. In markets airing the network news at 6:30 (as most, but not all, markets do), the newscasts drew 23.5 million viewers last season. This audience wants an evening newscast, so whichever network first drops the nightly news immediately hands the others a sweet ratings bump. Let's assume, very conservatively, that 20% of your evening news audience would split evenly among other newscasts. So, congratulations: You killed your newscast to get a leg up in the ratings, but you just made your job that much harder. "While [network news] ratings have eroded, they're still higher than a lot of syndicated options on at the same time," says John Rash, senior vice-president at ad agency Campbell Mithun.

And a new programming paradigm won't arise in the early evening. The key point isn't that newscasts attract an old audience. The key point is that older people are the only grown-ups watching TV in the early evening. The networks have not compiled an inspiring track record in breaking new ground during prime time, when more adventurous viewers theoretically abound. (CBS (CBS ), smarting from a steep ratings fall-off since Katie Couric took over, offers a cautionary tale about trying something new in the early evening.) Remember, too, that newspapers draw ire when they drop a comic strip. Imagine what axing an entire newscast would bring. Big-deal politicians will use you for target practice, or threaten legislative blowback, since said pols are superannuated enough to watch broadcast news. (Fun facts: The average age of the evening news audience is 60.6. The average age of a senator as of January? 61.7.)

Bigger moves have been mulled. Asked recently what he'd do with the evening news, former CBS President and current Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin recalled issuing this challenge: "Let's eliminate it. You know, I mean, who cares?" He sought to buy CNN, couldn't, and also had talks over a broad news partnership with that cable network. Those talks got far, as did others between CNN and ABC, before all fell apart over control issues—read: institutional ego. ("For all I know, Ted Turner pulled out a sword," shrugs Walter Isaacson, who ran CNN back then.) Given those egos, I am not holding my breath for such a deal happening soon. Today, like the Electoral College or my Treo, the networks' evening newscasts remain an illogical structure that no one today would choose to erect from scratch. But unlike them, it's not clear the conceivable alternatives will work better.

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By Jon Fine

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