Tuned In

Big Events Help Network News; Also, They Don't

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Two side-by-side stories in today’s Romenesko media news: 

1. Thanks to a spellbinding Presidential election and major economic news, 60 Minutes‘ ratings are way up

2. Despite a spellbinding Presidential election and major economic news, network newscasts‘ ratings are slightly down

The angle of David Zurawik’s interview with 60 Minutes’ executive producer on the Baltimore Sun website (and a related story in the New York Times) is that in a time of great change, great events and great uncertainty, Americans want substance and longform journalism, and they are rewarding 60 Minutes for providing it.

I, like most journalists, would like to believe that. But I also have to remember a great quote from Pete Hamill at an IFC panel I went to earlier this week: “If you want to believe the story, it’s probably not true.” 

To be clear, 60 Minutes has been doing good work on the election and the credit crunch, and good on them for pulling ratings for doing it. But I don’t think the evening newscasts have been slacking off, either. As powerful as the temptation always is to believe that ratings news confirms my personal preferences—people would rather watch long stories than the short pieces on the evening news!—my first instinct tells me that ratings stories, especially in news, largely reflect long-term systemic trends. 

In this case, it’s that its easier to draw viewers in primetime than in the 6:30 weekday slots that the newscasts are stuck with. At 7 p.m.-ish on Sunday, 60 Minutes is well-positioned to benefit from big news stories, a high-profile interview (like this week’s Obama get), or even a strong football lead-in. Whereas the newscasts are facing irreversible demographic shifts in getting people to sit down in front of the TV—and, in fact, the election may have stemmed what would have otherwise been an even greater drop in their ratings from 2007.

That 60 Minutes is thriving is a great story, and I hope it keeps it up. But that this is a sign of a resurgence of an audience for serious TV journalism—right now, that remains the story I want to be true.