Dan Rather signs off today as anchor of CBS News. Viacom co-president Les Moonves has pledged to revamp CBS News, which for years has lagged in third place in the nightly news ratings. We asked a handful of journalists and executives how he should do it.
Don’t revamp it
To begin with, I am a friend of Dan Rather — also Tom Brokaw — and have a nodding acquaintance with Peter Jennings. They have all done an admirable job — and I watch the network news every night, though two of the three are gone. I still would not revamp the evening news. It gives me my fix, before I eat dinner. I trust CBS, NBC and ABC.
The fact that Rather made one mistake doesn’t mean any of the networks should throw out the baby with the bath water (unless it’s a good news story.)
The main reason the anchormen make so much money is the networks also make so much money. Whether we like it or not, the bottom line is what TV news is all about. As a columnist, I’m envious of their salaries — but I don’t sell commercials.
Everyone agrees we’re in the middle of a media revolution. The cable news stations try to give you bulletins 24 hours a day. The networks own CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Does that mean there won’t be room for anchormen? Not so. You have Wolf Blitzer, Brit Hume and Chris Matthews.
If I have a real problem with TV news, it is that a billionaire (read Rupert Murdoch) will get control of all four networks, and make Bill O’Reilly their anchorman.
No matter what they say about Dan Rather, he’s one of the five people I want to meet in heaven.
— Art Buchwald
Be the Eye of America
Build on five pillars.
1. Amazingly little of the world’s teeming dramas reaches American screens. None of the networks, or cable, really exploits this footage. Pontification drowns out drama. Younger Internet audiences in particular are looking for action and are much more likely to be drawn into raw, unmediated feed.
2. Anchor: Stop pretending the anchor is a trenchcoat reporter. Audiences today are way too savvy to buy into that, especially the young and media hip. Instead, keep the anchor in the studio and build up the real correspondents to be equal stars, especially women (think Christiane Amanpour).
3. Time: Begin at 7 p.m. The evenings of the suburbanized mass audience start at least an hour later than they did in the ’60s. Be bold and do an hour — with a Jon Stewart/Andy Rooney spot or some such like leading into primetime. Update half an hour at 11, when nobody is doing it. Younger couples with young children simply cannot get to watch until then.
4. Content: Overseas reporting was cut back by the bean counters just when the world story became the story. Our world has shrunk and our interests enlarged. CBS can lead a campaign to be the Eye of America. The kind of news stories now written off as eat-your-spinach news can be just as compelling as forensic detection is in “CSI.”
5. Tap into your news division and import new heads to bring imagination to the less obviously entertaining stories, and you will get better work out of your news division. Look how brilliantly they all rose to 9/11 when they were at last allowed to do “serious” stories. The commitment should be to bring us the best stories wherever they are. How riveting is the pursuit of terrorists when we see it brought alive as Fox does in “24”?
— Harold Evans
Get smart, hang tough
First choice, have Les Moonves revert to his days as an actor and do the news. If that doesn’t work, then get the toughest, smartest, wisest combination you can find.
The right wing is going to attack unless you hire Hannity, so the folks sitting in the hot seat need to be able to withstand the onslaught. But at a time when cable races to the bottom with sex, scandal and violence every minute on the minute, there’s a great opportunity for real counterprogramming: in-depth news, served up with true reporters, not just dumb brains and pretty faces.
I think there is a ratings win in a revised news program that is proud of really delivering the news, and not afraid to say so — news that doesn’t hesitate to investigate, search for answers, and actually create new stories, not just repeat press handouts. A news outlet that hangs tough in presenting all the news, no matter who the hell it offends. In short, news as it is meant to be. And because that is not being done today, the chances for commercial success are significant. Not pie in the sky dreaming, but good solid counter-programming and serving an audience that is not being served.
— Robert Greenwald
Cover the world
First priority is to decide on the first priority. Is it hard news or is it entertainment? If the former, then you have to decide how much of it, and how to make it accessible. We know from the consistent ratings of “60 Minutes” on Sunday and “Nightline” that people will watch real news in large enough numbers to bring in the bucks. So back to the next question — how much of it? The country is fighting a kind of world war. This time, the enemy will actually set off nuclear or biological/chemical weapons Stateside if they can. So, how can the country not be interested in hard news and foreign news? The challenge is to make those things sound urgent and relevant. Because if we must feed Americans pap in order to keep them interested in news programs, then we are failing to show them why news is important to them.
With all the spread of 24/7 cable news and blogging and radio chatter, we are getting very little actual information. So the first step is to become evangelical about providing more news — to alert the public daily that less news is dangerous to them, to raise their consciousness on the subject. Then to go about providing that, while banging the drum on it — yes, self-righteously if necessary.
More foreign correspondents, more foreign bureaus, educated journalists who speak foreign languages, more money invested in news, on actual reporting — throw open the windows to the world beyond and shout loudly that you’re doing it. Demand that local stations carry international news, and that they help pay for the networks’ investment. With each segment from abroad, hammer home the relevance factor.
Why is Azerbaijan important? Because we need their oil and Russia is trying to block our access to it. Are we winning or losing the battle for a strong America by being so unpopular abroad? If we lose, what exactly happens to our way of life — electricity blackouts, urban strife, unemployment — what? Too much of the debate centers on anchors, news stars, ratings, etc.; too little on the encroaching reality. It’s easy to do lazy, parochial journalism. It’s much cheaper. But it’s taking us down the primrose path to oblivion, as the Bard says.
— Judith Regan
Find the target aud
Instead of seeking salvation in a new, charismatic anchor, CBS would be smarter to design the first newscast for the modern audience. It should target serious news consumers who loyally follow breaking news all day through news radio, cable and the Web. Produce a program that’s worldly and doesn’t waste time. The BBC World News, which airs on PBS affiliates, is a model. And reduce the number of commercials. Right now, about eight of the evening news’ minutes are ads. Yes, the show will lose revenue, but it will gain viewers, which is the program’s immediate problem, right?
CBS News could also partner with a premier daily newspaper — the New York Times, the Washington Post (which owns Slate.com), the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal — to give viewers a taste of tomorrow’s breaking news tonight. What’s in it for the newspaper? The Post Web site already draws more readers nationally than it does locally. The CBS News exposure can steer additional eyes to those Web pages.
One reason for the evening news fade is that it was scheduled for an era when moms stayed at home and cooked for Dad, who didn’t have a long commute. CBS could capture new viewers by swinging a deal with CNN to rebroadcast a refreshed version of the CBS Evening News in the 10 p.m. slot. How many 30-year-olds do you know who would watch the evening news at dinner time if you paid them?
Finally, TiVo and other devices are destroying the concept of “appointment viewing.” CBS should take advantage of this new technology by broadcasting the program on the Web, either by streaming it or video-podcasting it. Modern viewers think it’s absurd that the evening news is available on the monitor in their living room but not the one in their den when they want it. And you know something? They’re right.
— Jack Shafer
Break the star system
We don’t have Dan to kick around anymore, so how do you fix CBS News? My advice: Be bold! Don’t buy back into the cult of personality. Don’t hire a Katie Couric-type megastar for a quick ratings fix. It’s carpe diem time. You need to rebuild CBS from the ground up. Here’s how to do it:
Root out all kamikaze “Dan Cult” die-hards, top to bottom.
Hire hard-nosed, hands-on journalists to run your newsroom. Cut across news cultures and recruit print journalists to shake up your picture-centric TV troops.
In selecting new on-air talent, take a hint from “American Idol.” Les Moonves is a Hollywood guy. He should change the format from a single “voice-of-God” anchor to a boy-girl duo, buttressed by sharp correspondents who could be pretenders to the anchor-throne.
Viewers should be encouraged to “vote” with comments on the CBS Web site. Let the viewers tell you who they like. Your future superstar — or stars — will emerge naturally.
Appoint an ethics watchdog who’ll work hand-in-hand with your lawyers to ensure that no power-player will ever be able to seize control of your newsroom again.
Send the message loud and clear: This is not your grandfather’s evening news! Cronkite and Murrow, with all due respect, are history. Never let another news snob like Dan Rather sell you on the idea of “dignified” news. Never ignore the fun stuff and human-interest stories Enquiring minds really want to know about.
To sum up: Don’t deify the messenger. Leave those portraits of Cronkite, Sevareid, Murrow and Rather hanging in the boardroom. It’s time to move away from star power. Your message should be: “CBS — Where NEWS is the star!”
— Mike Walker
Art Buchwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and syndicated columnist; Harold Evans, former president of Random House, was for 14 years editor of the Sunday Times and Times of London and is the author of “They Made America”; Robert Greenwald is director/producer of “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” and “Uncovered: The Iraq War”; Judith Regan is president of ReganMedia and publisher of ReganBooks; Jack Shafer is media critic for Slate.com; Mike Walker is gossip editor of the National Enquirer and author of “Rather Dumb: A Top Tabloid Reporter Tells CBS How to Do News!”