Remember when network news seemed like the quiet sanctuary of the TV business?

Actually, it was not that long ago that the ground started shifting: Ted Turner reinvented himself as a bilious billionaire, then Roger Ailes decided the dictionary didn’t understand the words “fair and balanced.” Dan Rather suddenly imploded, Peter Jennings passed away and Tom Brokaw announced that the anchor’s chair belonged to younger men — like Bob Schieffer.

It was also about then that Les Moonves began his public ruminations about redefining what’s news. The subtext: If any future anchorman said “good night and good luck,” it would be the anchor who would need the good luck.

Amid this chaos, does Katie Couric really find Dan Rather’s old chair that appealing? Sure, the reported $15 million payday looks good (though it’s less than she makes on the Today Show). At age 49, she must be weary of getting up that early to smile for three hours at Matt Lauer and groggy celebrities.

Though “The Today Show” is technically the product of NBC News, it’s the glitzy and fluffy stuff that gets the ratings. In her evening gig, Katie could focus on hard news, which would please her. That is, unless CBS is actually serious about giving the evening news more “entertainment value” so that it becomes a half-hour version of the “Today” show.

All this sounds theoretical, but Katie’s contract expires in late May and cosmic changes likely would be announced just before the annual upfronts in mid-May.

Big ad dollars figure in all these changes, to be sure, and that also applies to Roger Ailes’ ebullient empire, Fox News. Ailes has had several years to relish his delicious domination of CNN. When it comes to pizzazz and showmanship, the churlish Ailes clearly gets the trophy.

But then there are some numbers and political portents to consider. Variety‘s sister publication, Broadcasting and Cable, estimates that Fox News still runs second to CNN in terms of advertising revenue and license fees — $794 million for CNN to $574 million for Fox News. To be sure, Ailes’ company is growing faster than CNN and is angling for higher license fees (especially if new deals with cable operators include a new Fox Business channel).

But will the increasingly polarized political climate cast a cloud over Fox’s expansion? Ailes’ competitors insist the Fox News audience is older, whiter, less educated and more rural than its rivals. Fox has a smaller proportion of urban viewers than CNN or MSNBC, the data suggests.

Support for the Iraq adventure is waning sharply along with the President’s popularity, and the upcoming Congressional elections will surely exacerbate the political divide. These trends may enhance the loyalty of Fox’s hardcore audience, but middle-of-the-roaders could peel away. Nervous advertisers may thus start looking for more clout in big cities and on the two coasts.

All this is speculative, to be sure, but if the political climate gets even nastier, Ailes may be tempted to return to his dictionary and check out his definitions one more time.


Looking inward

The reality that news is itself news was underscored by several developments last week.

There was a singularly perplexing four-page section in the New York Times titled The Changing Face of TV News — one of those murky advertorials where it’s all but impossible to figure out who’s paying the tab. The material was not prepared by the Times, according to an advisory in agate type. Its theme: That people still want the news but get it from increasingly divergent sources.

Advertisers in the section seemed to fare better than those who, like Fox News, disdained the venture. There’s one ad from CNN, which shouts “One news brand knows the NOW consumer,” but doesn’t mention either Anderson Cooper or his less-promoted colleagues like Lou Dobbs or Wolf Blitzer.

An ad from ABC News, reminds readers that “World News Now is the No. 1 downloaded video news podcast on iTunes.” It’s not really clear whether this revelation is intended to be the grand climax of the four-page section.

The New Yorker, meanwhile, weighed in with a feisty piece about Bill O’Reilly by Nicholas Lemann, which is a sort of 10th-anniversary non-tribute to “the most popular host on cable news.” (O’Reilly’s average audience is about 2 million, the story says; that’s twice Larry King’s.)

Has O’Reilly aged gracefully? Not according to the magazine, which claims he has become ever more temperamental, self-referential and “baroque” — a word only the New Yorker would apply to an argumentative broadcaster.

The underlying theme of O’Reilly’s fulminations, the magazine suggests, is O’Reilly’s sense of class, rooted in the fact that when he was a kid at tiny Marist College, the Vassar girls preferred to date Ivy League types. Whether O’Reilly would agree that this was a seminal influence on his life is dubious.