When a deranged gunman shot and killed two employees of Roanoke, Va.-based WBDJ-TV during a live broadcast in August — and then took the extraordinary step of posting his own video of the attack on social media — TV news producers sprang into action.
The bizarre incident was instantly recognized as a microcosm of societal ills and media trends, from the easy availability of guns and the difficulty of treating mental health problems to the pervasive influence of social media. At its core, the WDBJ incident was a heartbreaking human story of two promising young lives ended in a matter of seconds.
Roanoke was a example of a story that spurred a big competitive reaction from news networks to flood the zone.
Chris Cuomo, the co-anchor of CNN’s morning show, “New Day,” hopped on a plane after completing his anchoring duties. He was back on CNN quickly and stayed well into the night, then got a few hours rest and anchored the morning program from Virginia. He was not alone as all the major news outlets descended on the scene, creating a media village outside the CBS affiliate’s headquarters.
“We wanted to get there and do it from the ground,” says Jim Murphy, VP of morning programming at CNN. “This is a golden age of battle.”
TV news outlets have always jockeyed for scoops and ratings, but in the past two years the competitive fervor among the largest TV news outlets has stepped up dramatically. Morning, noon and night, the broadcast networks and the all-news cablers are waging a multiplatform battle for the loyalty of viewers and dominance of big, buzzy stories. New York remains the epicenter of TV news operations, which makes the ups and downs and executive shuffling of the business the talk of the town among industryites.
“One thing that these audiences are interested in is news — no matter what people say about attention spans and platform adoption and availability at different times of the day and in different places,” says David Rhodes, president of CBS News, adding, “and that’s something worth fighting over.”
Another reason for the heightened sense of combat is the recent turnover among talent and producers in news circles. The Big Three news anchors have all changed in the past four years — most recently with great drama this summer at NBC News — while an incoming regime and programming strategy at CNN has raised the stakes on the cable side. And with so many fresh online competitors, the narrowing of the ratings gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 shows in key news day parts fuels the drive to claim the leadership crown.
The network morning shows are a good example. ABC’s “Good Morning America” is locked in a pitched daily battle with NBC’s “Today” for No. 1 bragging rights, with razor-thin margins separating the shows most days. Both networks have had to contend with re-organizations of on-air talent on the fly, though the teams for both programs have coalesced in recent months. Meanwhile,“CBS This Morning” is making strides with its harder-news approach. In the evening, NBC lost, then regained, its first-place ranking in the evening-news wars amid the scandal over Brian Williams that led to Lester Holt moving into the anchor chair in June.
The chase for exclusive “big get” interviews and new ideas has heightened. ABC News scored a home run in April with more than 20 million turning out for Diane Sawyer’s exclusive sit-down with Caitlyn Jenner. Indeed, Fox News Channel’s Megyn Kelly is preparing to embark on a series of specials starting next year that will have her sit down with major newsmakers. Fox has also tested new formats like “Legends & Lies,” and the comedic “Greg Gutfeld Show.” Meanwhile, the on-air churn of talent at MSNBC and CNN’s new programming strategy of mixing newscasts, documentaries and lighter unscripted series is keeping things interesting.
The largest TV news brands are also focused on making their names relevant in the digital arena in the hopes of connecting with younger news consumers. The newer entries in this space include CBS’ streaming-video CBSN operation to CNN’s CNNMoney to MSNBC’s Shift. David Muir anchors ABC’s “World News Tonight,” and he also hosts a Facebook stream.
The fighting among the majors threatens to turn into a riot in the coming years as more digital-native upstarts make an impact. Vice Media is a heavyweight online and is expanding its presence to a nightly newscast on HBO later this year. Buzzfeed, Vox, Fusion, the Verge, the Atlantic Wire and Al Jazeera America are but a few of the well-heeled entities fighting for a slice of the hard news audience.
The crowd is swelling as overall TV news viewership is shifting significantly. According to Pew Research Center’s 2015 State of the News Media Report, viewership of the Big Three network newscasts and morning shows has upticked by single-digits in the past two years while the overall audience for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC declined by 7% in 2014, a drop probably driven by cord-shaving.
The result of a shifting landscape is more hustle across the board. At ABC News, “World News” anchor Muir has taken the network to its closest point ever in its attempts to dethrone NBC’s “NBC Nightly News.” But he has had to work for it. The anchor has been on a whirlwind schedule ever since he took over the anchor chair from Diane Sawyer in September 2014. In recent weeks, he helped moderate a “virtual audience” between Pope Francis and groups of U.S. citizens. He conducted an interview with Hillary Clinton during which she said, “I’m sorry” for using a private email server to get some of her email during her tenure at the State Department. And he journeyed to the borders of Hungary and to Syria to report on the plight of refugees there.
“It comes with the territory, quite honestly,” said Muir, during a recent brief interview.
The constant flow of information both incremental and seismic on social media isn’t the only thing driving the new pace. Video has become ubiquitous as well. “There is a lot of technology: body cameras, dashboard cameras, surveillance cameras. There is just more material for people to see, and when you can see something, that has a wider impact,” CNN’s Murphy says.
Longtime news biz watchers say the only certainty is that continued disruption among the news status quo will only fan the flames of competition.
“What you have seen is some instability,” says Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News who now works as a news consultant, “and people see instability as an opportunity.”