May 8, 2019

A New Era at CBS News – But it’s Not What You Think

In a bold, decisive, and unsurprising move, CBS News President and Senior Executive Producer Susan Zirinsky announced major changes affecting both CBS This Morning and CBS Evening News. The announcement was made via a press release 15 minutes before the CBS This Morning 7 am broadcast, and Gayle King, co-host since 2012, informed the viewers of the changes during the live broadcast.

In one brief press release, CBS reshuffled the anchor desks at two of its flagship news programs and announced a move of the CBS Evening News broadcast from its landmark 57th Street studio in NYC to Washington DC. In announcing the changes, Zirinsky, who took charge of CBS News in March, said that this is “…the start of a new era for CBS News”.

What does this announcement mean for CBS and, more broadly, for the future of network TV news?

CBS This Morning
Viewership on the last-place CBS This Morning broadcast has plummeted precipitously since one of its co-hosts, Charlie Rose, was dismissed in the fall of 2017 due to accusations of sexual misconduct. Looking at Q1 2019 viewership, CTM was down 11% in the key 25-34 demographic vs. Q1 2018, and down 19% vs. Q1 2017, when Charlie Rose was still co-hosting with Gayle King. ABC and NBC’s morning news shows have not fared well, either. Viewership of ABC among 25-54s has declined 16% from 2017, while NBC is down 15%.

The new CBS This Morning team will debut on May 20th, with current co-host Gayle King, weekend anchor Anthony Mason, and correspondent Tony Dokoupil. The executive producer of the show will be Diana Miller, who was just hired by CBS in April. King’s current co-hosts, John Dickerson will move to 60 Minutes and Norah O’Donnell will become the anchor of CBS Evening News.

CBS Evening News
CBS Evening News, once the crown jewel of the CBS, has also been mired in third place for years, and the story has only gotten worse since Jeff Glor took over the anchor desk in 2017. Among the prized 25-54 demo, viewership of the show has fallen 20% since the 2015/16 season.

Much like its morning news programs, CBS has experienced the greatest decline in viewership, but NBC and ABC have fallen too, with NBC’s evening news losing 12% and ABC down 7% among 25-54s ratings since the 2015/16 season. By losing its audience at a slower rate than its competitors, ABC is closing in on first place in this advertiser-friendly demo. ABC has the lead in the total viewership category, an important number for bragging rights, but a far less important number for advertising dollars.

In an attempt to stop the ratings hemorrhaging, Susan Zirinsky named CBS This Morning co-host Norah O’Donnell as the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. O’Donnell will take over the anchor desk in the summer, and the show will permanently move to Washington DC in the fall of 2019. For Jeff Glor, his position as part CBS News is uncertain, though Zirinsky has stated publicly that negotiations are underway to keep Glor at the network.

Why Now and Will It Really Matter?
The changes made by Zirinsky desperately needed to be done and executed quickly, as CBS news ratings are dangerously close to a tipping point that would see advertisers abandon the network. Zirinsky also saw a strategic opportunity to change the culture of the once male-dominated newsroom by adding more women to powerful positions at the network.

Going one step further, moving the broadcast operations from NYC to DC will end up being a significant cost-saver for the network because many of the higher paid production team will likely choose to retire rather than move to DC.

If you have ever tried to explain the idiom, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” then look no further than the impossible task that Susan Zirinsky has taken on at CBS News. Live broadcast news is expensive, no longer timely, and its audience is getting older by the day (average viewer age is above 60). According to Pew Research, the percent of consumers that “often get the news on TV” fell from 57% in 2016 to 49% in 2018. During the same period, the use of online news sources grew from 38% to 43%, shrinking the viewership gap from 19 points to 6 points in a mere 2 years. This is the undeniable backstory at work here and it’s important.

Bold Prediction
At the end of 2018, TDG asked its analysts to make a bold prediction for 2019, and I thought it would be appropriate to reprint my prediction about the future of evening news:

“One of the Big-3 networks announces the end of the evening news broadcast after the Presidential election in 2020.”

“2019 will be the year that TV Network executives are forced to come to grips with the financial realities of their business. Objectively speaking, a television product that is expensive to make, has seen a 40-year decline in ratings, and a median age of 60+ should have been cancelled a long time ago. However, the prestige of owning a #1 evening news broadcast has been a legacy difficult to part with. While it is true that an average 23 million people still watch the evening news every night, the reality is that the trend only points downward, and the road to profitability is non-existent.”

If the staffing changes at CBS news do not result in a significant uptick in viewership, it is likely that CBS will be the first broadcast network to end its evening news programming.

Epilogue – Walter Who?
I spent ten years of my career at the CBS television network. I will never forget taking the elevator to the 24th floor at the CBS headquarters for my first interview. As I stepped off the elevator, the first person I saw was Walter Cronkite, probably the most admired newscaster in the history of television. Cronkite was waiting for the elevator and we exchanged a brief hello. That simple meeting played a meaningful role in my acceptance of the job at CBS and subsequent career in media.

I recently relayed the Walter Cronkite story to my Gen Z children and their reply was “Walter who”? While a focus group of two teenagers is meaningless, their reply made me realize that the era of broadcast evening news is already at a point of no return.

A 20-year veteran media executive, Rob Silvershein’s success in today’s competitive media environment is a direct result of his unique experiences spanning traditional, emerging, and startup media platforms. He is an accomplished strategist and spends most of his time advising media companies on how to structure themselves for long term success. He currently lives in Manhattan Beach, CA.

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