Who Is To Blame For The Broadcast News Decline?

By Alex Weprin 

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The fallout from the New York Observer article about departing ABC News producer Mimi Gurbst continues. This weekend, analyst Andrew Tyndall weighed in with what might be the most eloquent take on what happened, and what it really means.

For those not familiar with the case: after the New York Observer wrote a story about Gurbst leaving ABC to become a high school guidance counselor, we reported that commenters flooded the story with ad hominems leveled at her and other ABC News executives.

Tyndall looks beyond the comments, and sees frustration that is justified, but misguided.

The problem, he says, is not incompetence by “the suits” but rather an artifact of what happens when a once-stable business destabilizes under new competition.

He writes:

What I find disappointing about this thread is its underlying wishful thinking. The rage against Gurbst herself and, by extension, against management as a whole, seems to blind commenters to the fact that it is not some executive failure that is at root responsible for the decline of the prestige of ABC News–the wish that, somehow, all this could have been prevented if only the suits had made better decisions. Well, that is not true. Broadcast television as a whole is in secular decline. This decline has exposed corrupt and counterproductive management practices that prosperity had masked. By fixating so passionately on abuses in the executive ranks, this thread has been unable to visualize a viable, post-broadcast future for ABC News. Such a future has to be mapped out at the corporate level, one tier above president [David] Westin.

Tyndall’s analysis rings true. As we wrote yesterday, the cable news channels currently rule the news roost when it comes to revenues and profits. The decline of ABC News (or CBS News) has less to do with the people running it than it does with the fact that the broadcast business models can no longer support the news structure that had been built up over the decades. Large scale layoffs were inevitable, and a decline in quality would logically follow.

So what can ABC News do? Tyndall has an idea:

To be sure, ABC News’ future depends on switching from broadcast to digital but it also depends on forming alliances so that its newsgathering can be rationalized and its product becomes available on as many platforms as possible. The executives at Disney clearly recognized this phenomenon when they decided that ABC Sports could no longer stand alone and folded its broadcast operation into the ESPN cable brand. The sooner ABC News makes an equivalent deal with Bloomberg News the better.