Towards A Unified Theory Of Making A Good Business From Mediocrity, Network News Division

Slate’s Troy Patterson spent some quality time recently with CBS News’ slate of programs, and, from the sounds of it, it damn near made him lose his mind:

Most weeks, the perfectly decent Bob Schieffer, who will retire after the 2009 inauguration, sees Face the Nation to a finish as the third-rated Sunday show. And the only thing worse than the Nielsen numbers is the product.


Poor Katie [Couric], a victim of the poor health of her medium and of simple chauvinism, of unreasonably high expectations and of a stupidly high salary.


I suppose that we'll have to talk about The Early Show, a program entirely lacking in tonal coherence.


We're supposed to have some respect for 60 Minutes, and I'm not entirely sure why that is.

Etc. and etc.; you get the idea. His solution, borne out of deep and evident frustration, is to essentially take the whole CBS news operation out back and shoot it--or, as he rather felicitously puts it, "it is time for CBS News to be put down, in the Old Yeller sense of the phrase."

Well, ha, fine, OK, whatever. I’m not going to sit here and defend the augustness of what CBS news is airing. (Or, for that matter, what any broadcast network’s news operation is airing.)

But, really, what other options are there at key portions of the day?

Take the evening news. I’ve written about this previously, but the relevant takeaway from Katie Couric’s failure to succeed on the evening news is not that you can’t attract younger viewers to an early evening newscast. The relevant takeaway is that older people are the only grownups watching TV at 630 or 7. Media buyers I talked to for that column on the network's evening newscasts were not at all convinced that other programming would bring better (or even as-good) ratings.

For that matter, anyone want to suggest a way to counterprogram against The Today Show and Good Morning America in a way that would outdo the ratings of CBS’ Early Show?

(Really. I’m curious if there’s any answer to this question. I suspect there isn’t, and while I would be telling a very big lie if I said I particularly enjoyed the happy-news morning shows, the format remains a goldmine for the networks. )

The economics of network television in America are perverse, nonsensical, and in no way reward quality or new ways of thinking. (Big exception: reality TV, but even that was stolen from Europe, and not invented here.) A big part of the reason why network news operations haven’t been reinvented or killed is that it’s uncertain that other ways would do any better than the status quo.

But if CBS were to actually merge news operations with CNN-- well, that would be a whole ‘nother thing.

In any event, read Patterson's piece, because it's great.

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