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Dead Tree Alert: Charles in Charge

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In my TIME column this week: Charles Gibson is ascending, Katie Couric is floundering–and with her may be going the last ambitions that network TV news can ever draw in new, non-aged viewers again. Here’s a taste:

Gibson’s success has been seen as a vindication of old-fashioned gravitas over flash. Which is fair enough; Gibson is a trustworthy anchor heading a good, consistent newscast–Sanka to Couric’s espresso. But while he may have struck a blow for TV’s past, his success and Couric’s struggle may not be the best sign for the evening news’ future.

CBS’s decision to reformat its newscast and poach Couric may have been overhyped and gimmicky. But it was also optimistic, quixotic, even. Journalists dismissed CBS CEO Les Moonves, a show-biz guy and former actor, for taking it on himself to “blow up” the news. But at least he believed something few of them did: that the evening news could reverse its long decline, attracting brand-new viewers with all their original teeth, rather than just fighting over a shrinking pie.

I was hesistant to write this column, for a simple reason: that column appears in TIME magazine, which is–like network news–a long-established mass-media institution in an age where the media are no longer very mass. In other words, anything I write about the networks could be seen as writing about TIME, either veiled criticism or veiled patting ourselves on the back.

But, whaddya gonna do? I’m a TV critic, they’re TV. TIME does have challenges similar to them, similar to broadcast TV in general in the cable era, similar to big-circulation newspapers. All of us, whether we want to admit it or not, have to figure out how to reach audiences with more options, and to decide whether our strategy is to reach new consumers/readers or simply to go into stop-loss mode and hang on to the ones we already have as long as we can. Either way–again, whether we want to admit it or not–it means getting used to different times and smaller audiences.

Beyond that, I’ll let you draw your own analogies–I’m not sure my head can fit any farther into my navel than this.