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Network TV News to Adapt AND Die

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One of the grimmer, more distressing declarations I've heard from a TV executive has come from Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, just a year or so into his still-new position.

Sherwood said, in a recent interview with the New York Times' indefatigable Brian Stelter, that audiences themselves nowadays "pick what matters most to them, and we are trying to be adaptive."

It might sound subtle and suggest some corporate agility. But it's in fact merely another fairly crude formulation for the time-old approach of low-minded media bosses who are abandoning high-minded standards (if they ever had them) for the journalistic quality of their output. Remember the phrase "we just give 'em what they want"?

It's an accepted truism that what in effect was once -- oh, long ago now -- a monopoly enjoyed by our major TV networks' cartel for supplying news footage to the home consumer has completely collapsed. None of us, armed with our remotes and cursors to click, can be held captive any more by the 6:30 p.m. executive producers and their predictable run-downs; we are all our own news editors now. Those network dinosaurs certainly have to adapt or die.

That's not especially sad in itself. It's just a fact.

What's sad is the almost universal agreement in decision-making offices that this means dumbing down the news. It's hardly logical, but it's inescapably the direction in which our network lemmings are heading.

There's been much micro-managing talk among analysts of this shrinking marketplace. A lot is made of the efforts by NBC, ABC and CBS to differentiate themselves in clever ways (indeed this was the tack taken by the article for which the Times interviewed ABC's Sherwood). Truth is that for all that NBC -- still in first place in this unrewarding race -- tries to be tabloid in general... ABC tries to be more based on "human-interest" and "relevance to viewers" (anchor Diane Sawyer and her "empathy" are regarded as its stealth weapons)... and CBS tries, maybe too late, to recall that news affecting the nation as a whole is what's most important... they all come off as desperate and patronizing.

Ironically -- and it's a form of dramatic irony that recalls Greek tragedy -- it is CBS which is avowedly trying, with fervent appeals to our TV culture memory that it was once called the "Tiffany network" (always for me an odd cultural reference to signify high-quality journalism) to resurrect its famous high standards. And it's the nuts-and-bolts of how that attempt is being made that carry the seeds of its own downfall.

It all began, skeptical company directors and many shareholders won't forget, with substantial extra expenditure (called "restructuring costs" in the company's latest quarterly return) that have amounted to $40 million, merely in laying off its cancelled Early Show staff and closing down its show-bizzy Fifth Avenue studio in favor of a more newsroom-based set for the new CBS This Morning program. Charlie Rose has raised eyebrows by being brought in as anchor in the mornings -- an arresting piece of Greek-style hubris in itself, given that he's already making a nightly public television talk-show as well, and is newly drafted into a weekly talk-show for CBS intended plaintively to revive the success of Edward R Murrow's Person to Person in the 1950s. Spreading on-air talent this thin is not a good sign.

The new morning output is meant to match the proclaimed seriousness brought to The CBS Evening News by Scott Pelley as anchor and Pat Shelvin, a four-decade CBS News veteran, as executive producer -- and everything under the News banner is now meant to echo the solidly, continuingly successful (but very special) case of 60 Minutes.

Already the entrail-readings are proving discouraging. CBS This Morning, with its proud boast to newly emphasize "hard news," drew some additional curious viewers to its very first broadcast, but when audiences for an entire week are compared with its predecessor's numbers a calendar year ago, they are 10 percent down.

The seeds of failure? I'd say they reside (and I'm maybe biased by my time working with 60 Minutes' formidable but business-like Mike Wallace) in the tone of "we are giving you our grand vision of what you need" that pervades this now grandstanding news division's programming as a whole. 60 Minutes is different, as ever; its deeply-ingrained collective consciousness that "all that matters is the story" (probably founder Don Hewitt's greatest legacy) still prevails.

And CBS is not in any great degree different from its rivals. The tone is different, maybe, from channel to channel; but the overall effect is, equally across the dial, that of the superior purveyor of valuable goods.

It's the superiority that is deadly. NBC's news chief Steve Capus may also talk confidently of the networks' significantly "different tacks," but with power now entirely in the hands of the viewer, online or off -- any such stance, redolent of that inbred insider superiority, simply can't win.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "The Media Beat," with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.