In the Evenings, Something For Everyone

By Chris Ariens 

Network news veteran Paul Friedman has been keeping a close eye on the three evening newscasts of late and has written about their current state for the Columbia Journalism Review. Friedman’s engrossing 4,000-word dissection of the network newscasts boils down to this:  There’s the lofty one (CBS), the light one (ABC) and the one somewhere in between (NBC).

While NBC and ABC live by research, CBS despises it. Says CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager: “I don’t look at the research. I don’t believe in it. You do what you do well.”

And then there are the anchors: the one with the dramatic delivery (Diane Sawyer), the one with the dry wit (Brian Williams) and the one who rarely smiles (Scott Pelley).

And when added up, the three evening newscasts are watched by 20 million viewers every night.

Friedman knows better than most how these three news operations work, because he’s worked for all three. (Friedman writes how “CBS, like the other networks, has drastically cut back its foreign coverage resources.” In fact it was Friedman, while at CBS, who had to personally oversee many of those cuts.)

As we said, it’s a chock-full piece. But the section about celebrity coverage sticks out, as it’s where the three broadcasts seem to differ the most, something NBC Nightly News anchor Williams is deeply aware of.

[H]e is fully aware that Sawyer’s ratings got closer than ever to his when she began her program one night with a report on the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, while NBC was leading with the economy and politics.

“Hasn’t that always been the dirty little secret that we know that third rail is there?,” Williams says. “We all know exactly where it is and sometimes you have to walk real close to it. I happen to think people don’t tune into the Nightly News to see the Michael Jackson story. There’s a lot we won’t do.”

CBS News chairman Jeff Fager goes one further, telling Friedman: “the country is so sick of all the celebrity stuff, which we’re completely drowning in. The same thing with crime; it starts to look the same. If someone said to me, ‘Look Jeff, you have to go downmarket,’ I’d say, ‘Find someone else to do it.'”

(It should be noted CBS News has found success in crime coverage on its “48 Hours Mystery” program.)

But back to the evening newscasts and why one show is successfully and unapologetically forging its own path.

At ABC News it has been a preoccupation of the anchor and producers to look for what they call the “insurgent lead.” Ben Sherwood introduced the term when he took over as President of ABC News at the beginning of 2011, and wanted his staff to understand the change he hoped to see.

“Insurgent is a word that means to rise up against the established order,” Sherwood says. “And so part of what I wanted to do was to rise up against the established order of choosing things — the established, traditional view — and say what is an alternative to the established order of picking things, so that we’re all not identical. Because if we’re all identical at 6:30, then the established order will prevail. And the established order is that Brian is in first, and we’re in second, and CBS is in third.”