Network newscasts still rule, CBS says

Report argues that cable isn't drawing numbers of note

August 02, 2002

CBS officials sought to defend the relevance of network newscasts yesterday, arguing that cable rivals have been unduly lavished with attention as pre-eminent sources of news even as they reached fewer Americans.

"As much as some people want to write off the three network evening newscasts, the number of people watching overwhelmingly tells the story," said Sandy Genelius, vice president for communications at CBS News.

Yesterday, executives at the network circulated an analysis to reporters to sustain that claim. They argued, for example, that the three half-hour network evening newscasts (on ABC, CBS and NBC) draw more viewers each week than the entire weekly combined schedule of all five cable news networks (CNN, CNBC, Fox News Channel, Headline News and MSNBC).

Executives at one cable rival scoffed at the description. "The real story here is the migration of viewers from broadcast news to cable news," said Greg D'Alba, executive vice president for sales and marketing for CNN. "People don't just watch a particular half-hour of news. They watch news on demand at various parts of the day."

D'Alba said the move had the whiff of "desperation," while several of his peers noted that CBS' nightly newscast, with anchor Dan Rather, remained in third place of the three major networks. When breaking news occurs, people now instinctively turn to cable outlets, he noted.

But the other broadcast networks largely embraced CBS' push. NBC and ABC officials said the nightly newscasts, a remnant of the golden age of television, are still profitable and more journalistically vibrant than their cable counterparts.

"By virtue of only being on for a half-hour, we tend to have an opportunity to digest a bit of the day's news and pour more resources into a narrow window," said Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight. "Not everybody has the time or inclination to watch the cable stations for a long time." Broadcast viewing levels have increased since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, he said.

The battles for ratings supremacy of the 24-hour cable news channels - back-and-forths involving outsized personalities and strategizing over high-decibel talk shows - have attracted heavy coverage from many newspapers and magazines, network officials complain.

As networks have lost audience share to cable stations over the past decade, such stories often suggest that the nightly newscasts of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Rather have lost relevance, as well.

"The print media has been the driving force in looking constantly at the cable battle," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the CBS Evening News. Cable offers "a lot of colorful people saying a lot of colorful things. It's fun to write about."

But, Murphy said, "our product is better - genuinely, by any stretch of the imagination, it is better."

The CBS analysis found that nearly 75 million Americans each week tune into the three half-hour network evening newscasts: ABC's World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News.

By contrast, CBS said, the five cable news networks draw about 9.6 million distinct viewers during the same time periods. A few officials at other networks questioned the validity of that comparison, saying networks and cable stations fulfill different roles. Cable stations stressed the total number of viewers rather than how many are watching at a particular time, as many of their viewers tune in several times a day.

But the average network newscast attracts between 9 million and 11 million viewers, while the top cable news show - Fox News' O'Reilly Factor - garners about 2.1 million. More typically, cable news shows earn audiences of several hundred thousand viewers.

Network news shows are "still the pre-eminent news delivery medium for national and international news, for the American public," said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which tracks the broadcast news industry. "Obviously, their audience has declined over the last 30 years, but there's no evidence that their decline is any higher than for network television overall."

A spokeswoman for MSNBC did not return calls by deadline, while Fox News Channel spokeswoman Irena Steffen declined to comment, noting her employer's blanket policy of refusing to have any dealings with The Sun.

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