THE VENERABLE ROONE ARLEDGE may not be retiring, as was first rumored, but, in naming David Westin president of ABC News last week, the network was certainly signaling that Arledge’s 20-year reign is coming to an end. “These are difficult days for the news divisions,” Howard Stringer, a former president of CBS News, told the New York Times. “As the audience erodes from the mainstream broadcasts, you lose smart news viewers, and the networks begin to seem less like the center of the action.”

As a consumer of TV news, I’ve been channel surfing lately, trying to discover where the “center of the action” has moved to. Local news shows? They’ve basically become a highlight reel of inner-city crime, cutting away from the shooting gallery only to show a freeway chase (no one ever seems able to explain who was running or why) or outtakes of some security camera in a 7-Eleven outlet.

Since news directors apparently think hidden camera footage is so fascinating, I’m surprised we don’t have a TV channel devoted exclusively to it. “Here’s exclusive footage of a customer stealing $45 from a Taco Bell,” the announcer will intone. Is that the center of the action?

Switch to CNN: It drones on the same as ever, as though its faceless anchors were biding their time until the next Gulf War. Are you napping, Ted Turner? MSNBC is now in 30 million homes and Rupert would do anything to augment the 20 million homes that now receive Fox News — he’d even buy a night in the Lincoln bedroom. What is CNN’s answer to the competition? A new 4% budget slash reportedly is in the works at CNN, a network that is already a cost-cutter’s dream.

NETWORK NEWS ANCHORS SEEM to be growing listless under the pressure. Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather are nattering at each other. NBC News believes it can steadily improve its ratings with lifestyle features. Brokaw gives more health tips than the Mayo Clinic. The assumption at NBC is that foreign news is no longer germane. We’re clearly not going to hear from Bosnia again until they start cloning sheep.

Hence, true news junkies have to shift to MSNBC or to print media if they want to know the esoterica, such as whether a new war is breaking out somewhere.

Talk to the network news mavens about this and you get conflicting stories. Arledge says NBC is only pulling ahead because of its soft features while ABC News is trying to find a better balance. Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, points out that ABC’s “World News Tonight” on March 7 carried a lengthy feature on Howard Stern, which NBC would “absolutely never do.”

In his heyday, Arledge had some great ideas to expand the news franchise — witness “20/20″ and “PrimeTime Live,” not to mention “Nightline.” But now ABC’s on-air superstars are getting both pricey and geriatric, and the network is confronted with infuriating legal judgments against some of its news shows. Clearly, new ideas are preferable to new lawsuits.

So what will be the center of the action? The dweebs predictably say real news junkies will go online. Microsoft is building an online version of MSNBC. ABC apparently is eager to start an online service with Starwave, a designer of Web sites like ESPNet Sportszone.

But are news consumers really going to play with their computers all night? Or perhaps, in pursuit of real news, will they actually do something retro like pick up a newspaper?

As network news becomes ever softer, one helpful alternative would be for independent local news outlets, radio and TV, to pick up the initiative, but this seems unlikely. It’s almost uncanny how similar local shows are, in format and content, not only within major markets, but from city to city. Fly from Los Angeles to New York, and you pick up the same diet of murder and mayhem — they even exchange footage of freeway chases and fast-food holdups.

On news radio, more time is spent reporting traffic jams than any other subject, as though cars made more interesting news than people. Talk radio’s idea of in-depth coverage consists of factoids (usually specious) such as: “63% of baby boomers say grace before dinner.” A week earlier, the same station reported that “fewer than 25% of baby boomers actually sit down to dinner,” meaning that they probably say grace in their cars in the middle of a traffic jam.

I ONCE ASKED A FRIEND of mine who is a veteran local news anchor what would happen if one station tried something different — a new format perhaps. “It could never happen,” was her instant reply. “News directors are too insecure. If everyone delivers the identical news, no one can be open to criticism.”

This is a pretty depressing environment in which to work, of course. If I were a local news anchor, I think I’d become as grumpy as Brokaw and Rather.

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