There are a few news stories from the past week that are very, very connected. One is Tuesday's announcement that "NBC Nightly News" won the 2007-2008 season. Another is the news that Charlie Gibson and "ABC World News" had the most total viewers last week, keeping their lead from the previous week when they won the demo, too. Another is the cover story of AARP magazine, featuring a NASCAR-driving, SNL-hosting, quality-hanging Brian Williams.
Some stories from last week are notable, too: One noting that Katie Couric and the "CBS Evening News" had enjoyed their best numbers since March; another noting Couric's success and renewed appeal thanks to her recent foray into the more freeing world of online video.
Where's the connection? In the great, wide world beyond the traditional 22-minutes of the evening news. If you want buzz, that's where to find it — and maybe, just maybe, the ratings will follow.
What BriWi Knows (And Katie Is Figuring Out)
Let's take BriWi, because he's the easiest example. The dude is everywhere — not only geographically, although the whole Afghanistan-Tehran-Berlin-Beijing-Conventions thing deserves some kudos. But literally, if you look at where he was a year ago when he was still behind Gibson in the ratings race, he's been on Jon Stewart multiple times, on Conan, Letterman and Leno, and — oh yes — hosted a little-known TV variety show called "Saturday Night Live." He was also on Sesame Street...twice. He blogs every day, regularly answers viewer questions online, and happily participates in random funny projects like the Bill Gates farewell video or Stephen Colbert WristStrong Revolution or Slate's Soprano's dialogue. He also takes time out of his busy schedule to hang with Bruce Springsteen and Bono. In short, his headlines are just as much for what he does outside his newscast than for what he does in it.
Couric had the flipside of that for a while — all sorts of press not about the work she was doing but why it wasn't working and when it would be ending. You remember all that. But it was rarely for the stuff she was doing outside her newscast — mostly because she wasn't doing much. I can remember watching her with David Letterman in an interview around the time she took the chair at CBS and thinking, wow, why isn't this smiley, fun woman showing herself more? (Here's a snippet; can't find the original anymore but it was loose and funny and great). Lately, that's changed — she went on "The View" and dissed her critics, kept on having fun with her YouTube channel, gave a savvy (and fetching) cross-platform shout-out to Digg, and hit her stride with the convention webisodes. All of which has let her relax and hit it out of the park in her day job — first this week with Biden, and, more notably, with what we've seen so far of her own killer interview with Sarah Palin. Have you noticed that no one is wondering about when she's leaving CBS anymore? She was even just on the "CBS Early Show."
What BriWi knows and Katie is starting to figure out is this: The 22-minute broadcast isn't the only game in town. Not by a long shot. Yes, they're 22 minutes of the most -watched news programming on television, and the main platform for their very best work — but still, you don't reach new viewers by only speaking to the viewers you have. It may not show up in the ratings today or tomorrow, but on, say, election night, or a moment of crisis, when an uncommitted viewer picks an anchor and tunes in.
So, what can Charlie Gibson do about it?
What Charlie Gibson Can Do About It
Charlie Gibson may just now be figuring all this out. After seeing last year's hot streak reverse itself back in favor of NBC, this week and last there's been a noticeable bump, thanks to landing the first (and majorly-newsmaking) interview with Sarah Palin. Granted, that was an event on his newscast, but the coverage of that event extended way outward, with everyone covering that giant exclusive — for a brief moment, Gibson enjoyed Katie Couric-like headlines (which is a rarity, despite being far ahead of Couric-like ratings).
Also, he's finally started a blog. And it's good! His entries are long, and thoughtful, with reflections and memories, and you can tell he's sort of warming to it — but more importantly, he's actually putting something out there for the viewer/reader to warm to, too, aside from his sincere wishes that you had a great day. With the exception of "Stand Up For Cancer" (which all the anchors did), the Dem debate in April (which I bet he'd just as soon forget) and a brief turn voicing a muppet anchor in a Disney Christmas special, Gibson just really isn't all that knowable outside his little 6:30 TV window.
Which brings me to my four little words — the four little words that I believe can change all that, and catapult Charlie Gibson back to ratings glory. Here they are:
Dancing. With. The. Stars.
Yes, that's right, Charlie: I want to see you DANCE. Does that have anything to do with your ability as a newsman? Of course not. Except here's the thing: DWTS debuted on Monday with 21.3 million viewers for ABC. Even skimming off 1/20th of those numbers would be enough to trounce Brian Williams handily.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. DWTS is an ABC show, and thus the perfect vehicle for showcasing the network's other stars. (Remember the show helped dance Gibson and ABC to an election-night ratings victory in November 2006.) The intra-network cross-pollination is a specialty of NBC (think Meredith Vieira on "30 Rock" — and, of course, BriWi on SNL); there's no reason that ABC can't take advantage of those synergies too. Finding the sweet spot between news and entertainment can only be a plus for any network.
And don't fret the loss of gravitas — what's more perfect to showcase Gibson's courtly, elegant side than a graceful waltz? Hes already look good in a tux, so no need to worry about losing any dignity via costumes (though a well-placed red matador cape never comes amiss — think of what it did for John O'Hurley!). Besides, BriWi was the test-case, and proved that gravitas can withstand funny hats and fake mustache.
No, all Gibson has to do is dance. He doesn't have to win — hell, no one would expect him to! The point is, America would love him for trying. And then they'd flock to his newscast in droves, because there is a well-established link between people who watch live-dance reality shows and people who want to know what's going on in the world.
But really, I don't see how it could fail. If you can trust America to cheer you on through a mambo, then America can trust you to deliver the news. That's how the bond between anchor and viewer develops. Just ask BriWi how far wearing a funny hat got him — I believe it was post-SNL that the tide started to turn back toward NBC.
It's a brave new world of broadcast journalism, where you're no one unless you're on embeddable video that can go forth and multiply on blogs, websites and Facebook pages. (Not to mention Twitter, as Rick Sanchez is finding out.) The only limitations lie with you — and what you're prepared to do, and with whom, and whether or not you do so in sequins. It can be as easy as a trip to "The Daily Show," a visit to Leno's couch, or finally wearing a simple red bracelet. Or — if you really want it — it can be about the music swelling and the lights coming up on a couple, moving as one, leaping and gliding and twirling across the floor as the crowd roars and the folks at home cheer...and then forget to change the channel.
The choice is yours, Charlie. But I think it'd be sorta cool.
'NBC Nightly News' continues its winning streak [LAT]
Anchor Wars: Williams And Gibson End The Year Neck-And-Neck [ETP]
2 Out Of 3 Anchors Join Colbert In Wrist Stunt [NYT]
Evening News Ratings [TVNewser]
Possibly Related, If Somone Dares:
"Dancing with Stars" leads TV's opening night [Reuters]