December 1, 2021

The Case for Cancelling Evening News Continues to Get Stronger

Over the past few years, TDG has expressed much concern about the troubled state of network evening news. In a recent article published by Deadline, former New York Times CEO, Mark Thompson added to that concern by proclaiming U.S. TV news to be in “dead trouble,” reasoning that the network broadcasts are “completely unchanged” since the 1980s and that there are virtually no viewers younger than 60.

At TDG, we focus on staying “ahead of the curve” and our evaluation of the network news marketplace is no exception. Hearing our own words echoed by a heavyweight industry insider is a clear indication that the changes we have been promoting are likely upon us.

In Case you Missed it…
In June 2021, TDG published an insight titled Why Broadcast Networks Should Seriously Consider Canceling Their Evening News Broadcast. The piece outlines the case for why Networks need to look at the daypart’s advertising marketplace in conjunction with the reality of poor demographics and adjust accordingly. TDG insights published in previous years pointed to the same conclusion. A fresh look at the rationale behind our assessments of network evening news’ future offers a clear view of why our projections have been spot-on.

Despite the significant impact newsworthy events have on everyday life, the audience for evening news has been declining at a rapid rate over the past 10 years. Buoyed by pandemic viewing habits as well as the tumultuous Presidential election/transition, many pundits had mistakenly concluded that the small audience bounce (from 4.6 in 2018/19 to 4.8 in 2019/20) was a sign of an evening news resurgence. As the chart above indicates, TDG rightly called that uptick a “Dead Cat Bounce”.

Additional Factors impacting Evening News Broadcasts
Increased Competition. While 24-hour cable news networks have always been a threat to major network news viewing, it is the rise of the internet and social media that are largely responsible for diminishing the traditional role of broadcast networks as the go-to source for important news.

Keep in mind that the culprit is not declining demand for national news. Rather, today’s consumer has a wide variety of (more convenient) ways to access national news than via live linear broadcasts. With broadband in nearly 85% of American homes, consumers increasingly turn to online sources to stay current on both national and local news. This trend is almost impossible to nullify, making the prognosis for live linear evening newscasts less than encouraging.

A Loss of Credibility. When Walter Cronkite retired in 1981, eight-in-ten American adults gave him a positive rating. In 2005, just prior to Dan Rather’s retirement, only two-in-ten believed him all or most of the time. As recently as 2018, the level of trust in anchors remained very low. Lester Holt of NBC had the highest trust level at 32%, David Muir of ABC had a 28% level of trust, and Nora O’Donnell of CBS was measured at 18%. Any way you slice it, the poor credibility of national newscasters has become an albatross that networks have found difficult to shake.

The High Cost of Quality News. When analyzing the future of hard news on television, few have paid sufficient attention to the cost of putting on a first-rate broadcast. It is cost-prohibitive to provide each network with its own news bureau in major hot spots around the world. While networks have pooled their resources to save money where it makes sense, broadcast networks are now in competition with citizen journalists and freelancers, many of whom are not trained to meet the journalistic standards we expect in the U.S.

This puts the networks between a rock and a hard place. With declining viewership, networks find it increasingly difficult to pump precious resources into creating a well-trained journalistic staff armed with the tools needed to be a world-class organization. But without such an organization, networks are unable to improve the quality of their newscasts such that credibility is enhanced. It is a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” conundrum.

The Slow Pace of Editorial Approval. Editors are expensive and they slow the process of putting news on the air, thus trying the (im)patience of the modern news consumer. (I want it all, and I want it now.) With many Internet and social media sites not having the same journalistic standards, disinformation and unvetted stories make their way to the public much faster than do professionally-gathered and fact-checked news reports. While consumers of mass media expect mistakes to be made by smaller media organizations, the slightest CBS, NBC, or ABC error becomes a big story, putting the networks in the unenviable position of either being slow or being wrong.

Conclusion
Unfortunately, looking closely at the numbers, and understanding the economics of television, TDG had it right when projecting tough times ahead for evening news, and the need to make tough decisions to address them.

This is particularly true for CBS. In June we predicted that the network would be the first to cancel its Evening News broadcast. Unfortunately for CBS, the story has only gotten bleaker as A25-54 audiences fell 11% year-over-year, making it a four in the last five years’ trend of double-digit audience losses. Meaning? If there is a move to be made, it should be made quickly.

There is still, however, an opportunity to grow network news reach, with ABC and NBC being the most-likely candidates to do so, and CBS still having some valuable resources at its disposal.

NBC is in the best position to address the decline in network news audiences by harnessing the newsgathering capabilities of its sister organizations (MSNBC, CNBC, Comcast, Sky News, NBC News Now) and its owned-and-operated (O&O) stations, as well as by using its Peacock platform for effective distribution.

ABC, currently the leader in network evening news, can harness the resources of its O&O stations, its stake in Vice, and its Hulu platform to increase distribution.

And CBS, a distant third in network evening news, can use its O&O station resources, CBS News channels, and Paramount+ and Pluto TV as strong streaming distribution platforms.

Stick with TDG to stay ahead of the curve.

 
 

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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