This fall has proved that the big three networks have two big problems. As NBC admitted in announcing massive cuts yesterday, their primetime schedules are losing viewers while the cost of dramas and sitcoms is greater than ever. Meanwhile, amid the fizzled hype around Katie Couric, their evening newscasts keep sliding into irrelevance, because fewer younger viewers will watch TV news at 6:30. ABC, CBS and NBC have a half-hour in the evening they can’t get enough people to watch, and an hour at night they can’t afford to fill.
Chocolate, meet peanut butter. Peanut butter, this is my friend chocolate.
People have suggested before that the networks try moving their newscasts to prime time to snare more viewers. Those people, generally, have been news-division folks spinning pipe dreams about getting an hour of valuable airtime to win their viewers back. But my TV-critic predecessor at Time, Richard Zoglin, also spun the scenario in 1998. In those heady days, it looked like a nighttime newscast could exist in addition to the 6:30 news, but, Zoglin noted, "Such a program could even–somewhere down the road, when the Rathers
and Brokaws and Jenningses have passed from the scene–replace the
traditional evening newscast altogether." The networks weren’t going to give their news divisions an hour each night as long as prime time was still, well, prime. But now that it’s been devalued, the time may be right to ask again: why not kill two birds with one stone–or, rather, try to cure two dying birds with one operation?
This change, if it ever comes, won’t happen tomorrow or this year, because no single network has both problems bad enough at the same time. NBC is bleeding in prime time, but it has the top-rated newscast. CBS has, er, Katie Couric, but it still has a good half of the primetime top 10 shows any given week. But with these two trains converging on the network track, it’s not hard to see the day, some coming season, when a foundering network under corporate pressure gives the nightly news an hour in primetime to save itself or die trying. It may be 8 p.m., the hour NBC just surrendered to reality programming. It may be 10 p.m., where the networks have been unable to launch new dramas this year, and which would lead in to local newscasts. Local affiliates would love to have the 6:30 half-hour for more Seinfeld reruns, and beaten-up network news divisions would love one more chance to prove that they matter.
This may be a ridiculous idea for many reasons. A successful hourlong primetime newscast nowadays would probably look more like Dateline than See It Now. (Meanwhile, newsmagazine ratings have actually been declining in the past few years.) Doubling the length of a newscast does not exactly mesh with the trend of cutting news division staffs down to the bone marrow. And there’s certainly no guarantee that a primetime newscast would make more money than Date the Fattest Apprentice. If the news division couldn’t pull the numbers, a move like this could quickly become just the excuse networks need to kill their newscasts altogether. Hey–we tried!
Like I said, a ridiculous idea. As ridiculous as the home of The Cosby Show deciding to stop airing sitcoms at 8 p.m. But sometimes a patient prefers a risky operation to certain slow death, and the bloodletting at NBC this week shows that the networks–like all big media outlets–are nervous enough to consider drastic changes. This time of flux could be the salvation of big-network news, or the thing that finally kills it off. Either way, a network with costs to cut and little to lose could just decide to hand over a chunk of primetime to the news division and tell it, Good night–and good luck.