ABC News Prez Ben Sherwood rejects traditional “hard” and “soft” news labels, and if I was in his shoes addressing a bunch of reporters, I’d probably do the exact same thing.
Speaking at the TV Critics Assn. on Monday, Sherwood bristled (even though he insisted he wasn’t) at suggestions ABC and a signature program like “Nightline” — which used its primetime showcase to air specials about strange occurrences, titled “Beyond Belief” — had gotten more lifestyle-ish in pursuit of viewers.
According to Sherwood, “Nightline” offers “a healthy mix of the news that people need,” citing “The relevance of the news in real people’s lives” as his criteria for what qualifies as “news,” as opposed to hard vs. soft. After the session, he told me there’s a need to “broaden the definition of what a news organization does,” referring to ABC News as a provider of “non-fiction content,” which does widen the umbrella. Heck, “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” fits that rough description, though Sherwood talked up the network’s rigid standards.
Frankly, I’m not clear how paranormal activity qualifies as “relevant” unless you’ve been haunted by a ghost, but it’s certainly relevant to trying to attract an audience. And perhaps that’s what bugs me about his response. Why can’t news execs just admit there’s an audience for “softer” news, and that purists aren’t being realistic about the clicks-and-ratings parameters of today’s digital world, which have given even staid old newspapers an incentive to pander in order to chase traffic — especially among younger demos — on the web.
Not surprisingly, though, Sherwood touted a number of ABC News coups during the last year — things like the Arab Spring and Brian Ross’ investigative reports — and shockingly, none of them had to do with Casey Anthony or Beyonce’s baby.
I don’t fault ABC for going where the eyeballs are. But insisting the network hasn’t fluffed up (or down) its content toward that end is hard — or to hear Sherwood tell it, since there’s apparently no distinction, soft — to swallow.