Aaron Brown Talks About… TV News

By Brian 

Part three of four

From home, Aaron Brown watches CNN and sees… confusion.

“They do some really good stuff, and they have some really bad days,” he said in a recent interview with TVNewser.

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t watch Larry King’s interview with Paris Hilton.

Brown’s thoughts about TV news could fill a book. (He’s not sure he’d want to write it, but he’s meeting with literary agents this week.)

Listen to the former CNN anchor’s quotes: “This business is one part TV and one part journalism — or sometimes two parts TV, one part journalism. On cable I think it tends to be a little more of the latter.”

“There are days when cable news is terrific journalism. On important days, they and we did important work.”

He’s referring to his four years anchoring NewsNight on CNN, from September 2001 to November 2005.

“People say to me, do you miss it? People say this to me all the time, I don’t know why. And I say: ‘Anna Nicole Smith. Paris Hilton.’ The fact is that in the cable universe, unlike in broadcast, the fact is there were too many days — for who I am, and what I wanted to be — there were too many days when you had to do stuff that was completely irrelevant in order to survive.”

Missing white women, for example.

Brown said his program shined when major news events were happening. “But Natalee Holloway just buried us,” he said. “We used to kiddingly say, we threw all our eggs at the tsunami, they threw all their eggs at Natalee Holloway.”

In the summer of 2005, before Katrina washed the story away, Brown’s time slot competition — Greta Van Susteren on Fox News — covered the Holloway dissapearance exhaustively, even beating The O’Reilly Factor some nights.

“Viewers clearly like the missing white girl story,” Brown said. “There is some weird fascination with these things, and I had to compete with that.”

This led to an idealistic question about competing with quality, hard news programming.

“Maybe if we had been smarter and put on more compelling coverage of things of consequence, viewers would have come,” Brown responded. “My guess is, they wouldn’t.”

Then he explained a theory about television news.

“I think viewers have made a judgment about broadcast news in a way. They want the evening news on the networks to be the evening news as pretty much it’s always been. If you look at the Couric launch: they tried not only to change anchors, which is complicated enough, but they tried to change the form, too much.

Viewers may not watch the evening news, but they want it to be the evening news, because they get that it’s different from a primetime news program or morning TV. They get it. When you’re doing a newscast at 10 at night, you’re competing not just with Greta — though God knows we were, and she beat us — you’re also competing with ER and CSI and all those programs I don’t know, as entertainment.

I think viewers see these [primetime] news programs as at least one part entertainment. If you are, as I am, kind of a dinosaur, old school anchorman, it’s pretty tough to compete with that.”

Almost two years after leaving CNN, Brown, like many others, has concluded that “big broad personalities and opinion seem to be what people expect from cable.”

In the first half of the decade, NewsNight was CNN’s second highest rated show. Perhaps it’s symbolic that the #2 show now is not a straight news program, but Lou Dobbs Tonight.