Tuned In

The Network News After Katie: Three-Way Tie for Last

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The New York Times takes a look today at the evening-news race two weeks after Katie Couric started and finds that she’s made the ratings race more competitive: Last week, CBS and NBC were neck-and-neck, with CBS winning by only 70,000 viewers. After a long period of NBC dominance, it is for now anyone’s game.

An interesting article as far as it goes, but for those interested in the future of the media–as opposed to whether GE or Viacom or Disney gets to collect the poker jackpot–the story buries the lede. CBS is up, yes. But the 6:30 network news genre at large is not. A few paragraphs in, the article compares the network newscasts among 25-to-54-year-old viewers, the younger demographic Couric was supposed to bring back to news, without whom the evening news will continue to slide into irrelevance unless we come up with a cure for death. CBS had a 2.1 rating, ABC and NBC a 2.0 each. (Each ratings point equals about 1.2 million viewers.) A year ago, CBS was at 1.9, NBC at 2.4 and ABC at 2.3.

In other words, the three networks at large are doing worse, or at best roughly the same, among their future audience than they were a year ago. When CBS was gearing up for Couric’s launch, the line that all the networks adopted–and many credulous TV writers swallowed–was: This is good for all of us. The nightly news is hot again!, they declared. People are talking about us! We’re relevant again! Say what you like about Couric, the networks told us, but the evening-news genre has turned around, and you can no longer call it a dinosaur.

Turns out it hasn’t, and you can. Now granted, it’s still early; two weeks only says so much. A year ago, the news was reporting the aftermath of Katrina; you could argue these have been two slower news weeks. But the numbers are not good regardless.

Whatever you would say about CBS’ move with Katie–that it’s turning too much to soft news, that it’s putting celebrity over journalism–it was, at least, an essentially optimistic strategy. ABC and NBC have adopted a plan of hanging on to as many of the remaining, aging viewers as they can, with very traditional anchors in a traditional format, angling for a bigger slice of a smaller pie. Only CBS has adopted the philosophy that the news business at large, even in the age of cable, Internet and media fragmentation, could actually redefine the evening news, get younger viewers back and make the pie bigger.

Chef Couric may not have finished baking that pie yet, but it’s looking more and more like a mini tart.