The End of Network News II


Are evening network news broadcasts on the way out? Some television experts believe so, as competing media siphon viewers from the network newscasts. Tom Brokaw delivered his final newscast last week, and Dan Rather will follow early next year. But it may not be long before not just a veteran anchor but broadcast network news itself says good night to America.

Battered by talk radio, the Internet and cable TV, the networks’ evening newscasts have been losing viewers for more than two decades. Although their audience of 27 million viewers still dwarfs that of cable news, industry experts say it’s only a matter of time until NBC, ABC and CBS start to pull plugs. ”The evening news is a concept whose time has come and gone,” said Bernard Goldberg, a former CBS correspondent who is now an acerbic critic of the industry. “I really feel sorry for whoever takes Dan Rather’s place. These new anchors will be dead men walking.”

Orville Schell, who heads the University of California’s graduate school of journalism, says he was puzzled by the recent glut of stories speculating about who will replace Rather at CBS in March and whether NBC’s new anchor, Brian Williams, can fill Brokaw’s shoes. ”We may be making a huge effort to reinvent hood ornaments at a time when the vehicle itself is wearing out,” Schell warns. “I think network news is on the precipice. This is a real tipping-point moment.”

You don’t need to read tea leaves to see which way things might tip, just numbers. When Dan Rather took over as anchor of CBS Evening News in 1981, 69 percent of the television audience tuned in to the networks’ nightly broadcasts. When he leaves next year, the networks’ share of viewers will be less than 38 percent. The decline gets sharper all the time; for the week of Nov. 15, the network news audience was down 5 percent from last year. The average age of viewers who remain — over 56, according to Nielsen Media Research — suggests that ratings will continue to decline as the audience literally dies out. And even before that, advertisers — who seek viewers in the 18-to-49 age bracket — will flee. ‘If the ratings continue to erode, there’s a line below which ABC or CBS or NBC says, `Hey, maybe if we put on another reality show, we might get more viewers,’ ” predicts Paul Levinson, head of the communications school at New York’s Fordham University.

I grew up on nightly network newscasts but gave up on them years ago. They’re simply anachronisms in an era of instant information. Indeed, even my parents have quit watching, preferring to watch Fox or Headline News at their convenience. (via Michelle Malkin)

FILED UNDER: Media, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    This does look like the way things are going. But it does bring up an interesting follow-up: what will replace them? The networks are still required to provide a certain amount of “public service” programming aren’t they? I guess it will be more news magazine programs like 20/20 and 60 Minutes.

    The problem, of course, is that both reality shows and news magazines seem to have seen their ratings peak already.

  2. Bithead says:

    I said this morning on my own Blog, regarding Brokaw…

    When Tom Teriffic showed up, NBC was in last place among the big three… Mostly because of the pompous, overbearing, and unabashedly leftist John Chancellor. Brokaw did what he could to reverse the situation. As of last week, when he stepped aside to make room for the glorified traffic reporter from Elmira, NY…. (yes, I remember WENY, Brian…) NBC was in first place among the big three.


    Brokaw’s real victory here was that he did a better job, in the end, of stemming the losses all three networks experienced through the period.

    Are there any lessons that can be taken from this reletive posiitoning, I wonder, regarding the Demise of the Big Three, and the rise of such as Fox?

    Perhaps a look at Brokaw’s predecesor, the totally insufferable John Chancellor, can bring something to this discussion? If as I suppose, John Chancellor was responsible for NBC being in last place, what qualities did Browkaw have to turn that situation around?

  3. bryan says:

    Funny, if you look at it, all three networks still have huge chunks of programming devoted to “news.” 60 Minutes II, 48 Hours, Nightline, 20/20, dateline … maybe it’s not the disappearance of network news, but the movement to the entertainment division.

  4. LJD says:

    Good riddance… and when will Jennings quit? Stupid Canadian…
    I was watching ABC news last night, it was my wife’s turn to use the remote…
    First the story about Pat Tillman, then stop-loss, then some other negative B.S. about our military.

    It went well beyond news reporting. It became abundantly clear that his position is firmly against the war, but also against our men and women in uniform. How else do you explain the repeated attempts to smear them? We should deport his dumb ass. Oh yeah, too late.