Why Broadcast Networks Should Seriously Consider Canceling Their Evening News Broadcasts
In 1980, 42.3 million people watched major-network evening news. Today, viewership has fallen to 23.5 million, a loss of 44% of viewers in 40 years. Nonetheless, the network evening news has a special place in the identity of broadcast networks. This legacy, combined with current licensing regulations, has prevented any truly genuine consideration of whether the models are sustainable, at least publicly.
With current ratings trends, the continued growth of the internet and streaming, and the high-cost of quality newsgathering, should television networks cancel their evening news broadcasts?
The Trend Is Not Your Friend
According to Nielsen data reported by Adweek, overall A25-54 viewership fell by -27% over the past 10 years. ABC fared the best with a 12% loss in A25-54, followed by NBC (down 32%) and CBS (down 38%). We anticipate this trend of declining audiences will continue for years to come.
Why Evening News Broadcasts Are Losing Audience
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 had a positive rating of him. 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 find difficult to shake.
During the 2019-20 broadcast year, the networks were quite vocal about their growth in ratings and quality demographics. However, once the election was in the rear-view mirror and the pandemic showed strong signs of retreating, the three networks reported double-digit declines in viewership. For the week ending May 24, year-over-year declines in the key 25-54 demographic were down 18% for World News Tonight, down 30% for NBC Nightly News, and down 15% for the CBS Evening News. As with TV in general, only big events seem capable of driving sufficient audiences for national newscasts.
All Is Not Lost
Each of the three big broadcasters still has an opportunity to grow their news reach.
- NBC is in the best position to address the decline in network news audiences. If it is to profitably distribute hard news, it must harness the newsgathering capabilities of its sister organizations (MSNBC, CNBC, Comcast, Sky News, NBC News Now) and its owned-and-operated (O&O) stations, and use 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.
- CBS, a distant third in network evening news, can use the resources of its O&O stations, CBS News channels, and Paramount+ and Pluto TV as strong streaming distribution platforms.
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 with 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. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
One step up the chain of news is the editorial board. Editors are both expensive and slow the process of putting news on the air, which defies the impatience of the modern news consumer. (I want it all, and it want it now.) With many internet and social media sites not having the same journalistic standards, disinformation and unvetted news makes it to the public much faster than does professionally-gathered and fact-checked news. 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.
When asked by TDG for 2019 year-end predictions, I said sometime before the end of 2021 one of the big-3 networks would announce the end of their evening news broadcasts. When asked for my 2020 year-end predictions, I doubled down on this prognostication and made it my #1 story in terms of the future of television.
Looking closely at the numbers, and understanding the economics of television, I believe that CBS will be the first network to cancel its evening news. I do not believe that the entire hard news division will be shut down, but it will be significantly trimmed. There are challenges in making this decision, such as how to keep 60 Minutes strong, how to maintain hard news segments in the morning, and how to fulfill the network’s obligation to be a presence during a national emergency, an election, or a presidential address. I do believe that these challenges can be met without having a major nightly newscast, and CBS will be in a financially stronger position to address its future.
I want readers to know that I spent more than a decade at CBS and remain close friends with many at the major broadcast networks. During my first job interview at CBS in 1988, as I stepped off the elevator, the first person I saw was Walter Cronkite. To this day, I can remember the feeling I had seeing the most trusted man in America. Times have changed, and I understand how difficult the decision to drop evening news shows would be, but I am reminded of Dan Rather’s word at the end of his last broadcast: “Courage.”
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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.