Sunday, December 11, 2005
TELEVISION: Networks reinvent TV news for a digital age with blogs/streams
The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
Published December 10, 2005
Networks reinvent TV news for a digital age
It will take more than new anchors to find fresh viewers, networks agree. But will it take Web logs? Cell phones? IPods?
By CHASE SQUIRES, Times TV columnist
TV networks hungry for more and younger viewers have introduced ripples of change in recent months that are turning into
a wave extending far beyond the tube.
While 27-million viewers tune in one of the major network nightly news shows, their ranks are aging and dwindling. So the
TV news business is realizing it will need far more than just the nightly news to survive in the digital age.
In the year since NBC's anchor Tom Brokaw became the first of the three longtime anchors to step down, networks have
raced to provide more live broadcasts, Internet feeds, Web logs, and cellular phone video bites.
ABC's World News Tonight this week replaced the late Peter Jennings with two anchors charged with multitasking their way
around the digital world. Announcing the appointments Monday of Elizabeth Vargas, 43, and Bob Woodruff, 44, ABC also
acknowledged the decades-old way of delivering the news has to change.
"This announcement is about ensuring the future of World News Tonight for the next 20 years," the show's executive
producer Jon Banner said in a phone interview. "More and more people are gathering and getting information online on
digital devices, on cell pones, on PlayStation Portables, on iPods. We have to adapt to that world. ... At the moment we
need to be in as many places and as many devices as possible."
CNN this week began live streaming news broadcasts to the Internet. CBS on Wednesday announced its first venture into
cell phones, sealing a deal with Verizon's V CAST service to deliver entertainment, breaking news and bits from the CBS
Evening News and The Early Show.
Top-rated NBC, helmed since Brokaw's retirement by Brian Williams, 46, has found success with Williams' popular blog. On
Tuesday, Williams' blog post exemplified the personal, intimate contact with news consumers allowed by the new media.
In apparent exasperation over a tough news meeting, he leveled with readers about how hard it is to design a nightly
newscast: "This intended-to-be-humorous delusion of grandeur on our part has some truth to it: I can't think of the last
broadcast we did that exactly equaled on the air what was agreed to at 2:30 p.m."
* * *
After they start their new jobs Jan. 3, Vargas and Woodruff won't only be on from 6:30 to 7 p.m. The new model has the
anchors delivering daily Web casts and three broadcasts in succession to deliver live news to most of the country,
including the West Coast, which has relied on taped feeds from New York. There are plans for frequent travel, blogging,
splitting the anchors between the field and the studio, plus special reports and Vargas' continued work hosting the
prime-time newsmagazine program 20/20.
Not everything will stick, Banner said. No one at any network can predict what will catch on, but like others, ABC isn't
about to risk missing the next big thing: "We've got to be in it to win it," he said.
Banner said his network isn't making changes just to lure younger viewers. But the commercials for prescription
medications aired during any network's nightly news is a good gauge of who's still watching: seniors.
How bad is it? Evening news ratings have dropped 59 percent in the past 30 years, and the average viewer is 60 years old,
according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
ABC and the rest are hunting for youthful eyes.
That's solid thinking, said Richard Wald, a professor of media and society at Columbia University and a former ABC News
senior vice president. Young people have never been the main viewers of the evening news, but in the past, they could be
relied on to tune in once they got old enough to care more about politics, the economy, world affairs and other evening
news fodder. Today, viewers still may care about such matters, but they can turn to the Internet or cable TV for their
information, when it's convenient.
"The problem today is that young people don't watch television news, and as they get older, they don't watch television
news. It's a real hard-to-disguise problem," Wald said. "What is the solution? It isn't simply to do more of the same,
you've got to do something slightly different. Exactly what is it? Nobody's perfectly sure (but) if the audience isn't
where they are producing the news, go to where the audience is."
As technology advances, finding the audience is not as easy as the old choice between print, radio or television.
"If we all knew what device was going to be the most effective way of getting content five years from now, we could
retire," Banner said. "Everybody is competing to get the attention of people and get them to use their device to get
Even TV itself is providing competition nobody could have anticipated just a short time ago - unlikely player Comedy
Central delivers a form of news through its Daily Show that many young adults swear is all the news they want or need.
* * *
So how well are those ripples of change meeting their target audiences so far? Melinda McAdams, a University of Florida
professor of journalism technologies, adores Williams' NBC blog, called The Daily Nightly. But otherwise, she and her
students have been unimpressed with most of what the networks and the big cable operations put on the Internet.
Streaming old-style TV news onto the Internet changes the delivery mode, but not the content, making it pointless, she
Her students, young news consumers, still want someone behind the scenes to gather, organize and present news in clear,
easy-to-access packages. What they don't want is reporters and anchors inserting themselves between viewer and story.
"You have the subjects of the story talk in their own voice. (Students) like that. They think it's so cool that there's
not one of these geeks with a microphone talking to us," McAdams said. "They feel involved when they hear this person
tell their own story. These kinds of stories actually reach you on a human level."
An anchor's role could be to provide background context and explain how stories were gathered and how the organization
made its editorial decisions, McAdams said.
The news content also has to be constantly updated, said University of Florida professor David Ostroff, head of the
school's telecommunications department. Waiting until 6:30 p.m. to hear what happened in the past 24 hours isn't good
enough for today's news consumer, who wants immediacy, but also wants it organized and prioritized.
And that, Ostroff said, is why traditional news organizations are still so important. They just have to update their
Wald recently moderated a Stanford University panel on the future of network news, featuring the heads of ABC, CBS and
NBC news. He said he felt encouraged, because he saw they understand they must change their methods in order to keep
delivering the news. Now, they have to figure out how.
"There may be a 15-year-old girl in a garage in Wisconsin who has figured out how to take instant messaging and combine
it with photographs from a cellular phone, but until she has a business model and delivers that product, we don't know
about it," he said.
"You're in a world where the unusual is happening on a fairly regular basis. ... Maybe we are all groping, (but) I think
people have a reasonable sense that things are in flux right now, but they won't stay in flux forever. We will wind up
being the children of a different way of doing things."
Chase Squires can be reached at 727 893-8739 or firstname.lastname@example.org His blog is www.sptimes.com/blogs/tv
[Last modified December 10, 2005, 01:13:47]
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