Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Hard News

Journalism is digging for hard news, right? Digging deep.

22 MINUTES? Commander Drudge seems to be taking some delight in reporting on the ratings race sparked by the launch of Katie Couric's CBS Evening News Today show. He links to a Variety article that analyzes the latest numbers.

Katie Couric's "Evening News" fell to third place Monday night, just six nights after she stormed into first in her debut week at CBS.

Couric's debut... brought in well over 13 million total viewers last week. While her audience dwindled from there, she finished the week with a comfortable 3 million-viewer lead over NBC's "Nightly News" and ABC's "World News."

But on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Couric resumed a ratings position only slightly better than the one Bob Schieffer left her with. Her 7.49 million total viewers were slightly behind ABC's 7.87 million and NBC's 8.27 million.

Drudge's headline features the ratings slump, but he appears to have missed the most shocking part of the story, buried in the tenth paragraph:

Rival nets pointed out that Couric's "Evening News" aired the least amount of hard news among the network newscasts over the course of last week.

According to news analyst Andrew Tyndall, CBS aired 19 minutes of hard news last week, compared with 46 minutes for ABC and 44 minutes for NBC.

Come again. Couric had 19 minutes of hard news? That's less than four minutes per day and only half the time viewers are subjected to commercials in a half-hour newscast. This means the CBS news audience will, on average, learn twice as much about floorwax, hemorrhoid remedies, and fast food alternatives than they will about what happened today in the world. And Les Moonves expects us to take him seriously as a news executive?

ABC and NBC aren't much better, averaging barely 9 minutes a day each of hard news, which is just about a minute more than the time allotted for floorwax and hemorrhoids. For this we have to endure the slick sanctimony of Brian Williams? If this truly is the financial reality of network news, shouldn't he discard the Savile Row suits and opt for one of those porkpie hats with a card reading "Press" stuck in the brim? And maybe he could also be honest enough to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and read the ad copy himself while holding up an oversized pack of Chesterfields. That would at least be entertaining.

Still, we are bamboozled with columns by media journalists analyzing whether or not Katie Couric has the starpower to save the genre of nightly network news broadcasts. The answer is no. No one can save a format so utterly empty and bankrupt. You can get more hard news than that between calls on your cell phone.

The options are few and stark. The networks can go burlesque, or they can turn out the lights and go home, because nobody will be watching.

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