Networks Happy to Cede News to Cable

I have just reached a milestone. At least, I think I have.

I have just read my 10,000th article about Ted Koppel and David Letterman. Well, it feels like 10,000. Maybe it's only 9,999.

It has been almost two weeks now since America found out that Letterman is staying at CBS and that CBS is thrilled, and that Koppel is staying at ABC and that ABC is resigned. CBS is grinning. ABC is stiff-upper-lipping. We all know that.

Yet the articles keep coming: a behind-the-scenes look at the negotiations, a front-of-the-scenes analysis of the future of network news, a think-piece on the importance of demographics to the broadcast networks, a thoughtless piece insisting that Letterman and Koppel are performers of precisely the same ilk, and stories blasting Koppel's ego and work schedule, Letterman's ego and mood swings, and the corporate wheeling-and-dealing of ABC's parent, the Disney Company, which Newsday columnist Marvin Kitman refers to as an outbreak of "Mad Executives' Disease."

And yet how few of the writers and commentators and critics have pointed out the role of all-news cable TV in all of this. How few have noted that the recent ratings increases of Fox, CNN and MSNBC, and the increasing importance of the three cable news networks to the journalistic life of America, are perhaps the most important underlying messages in the entire Koppel-Letterman sideshow. In fact, they should not be lying under at all. This column means to bring it to the surface.

A few days ago on CNN's Larry King Live, CBS newsman Mike Wallace told the host that, in his view, Disney boss Michael Eisner "would be perfectly happy not to have a news division at ABC." King said "Really?" To which Wallace replied, "That's what I believe. I'm sure that he will say no. But I have reason to believe that he feels that way."

So do I, Mike. In fact, I believe that the corporate owners of CBS and NBC join Eisner and his fellow ABC executives in wishing that they did not have to provide news any longer. And, as desire is father to the deed, it seems to me likely that one day they will decide to provide it no longer.

The reason is the present state of all-news cable, and the perverse manner in which the Big Three broadcast networks are responding to it. Rather than looking at Fox and CNN and MSNBC as adversaries, accepting the challenge they provide and upgrading their news divisions to compete with them, ABC and CBS and NBC seem to be regarding the all-news networks as an excuse. More and more they seem to be thinking that they are now justified in cutting back on news, ceding the territory to cable so that they can produce more sparkling entertainment programs, perhaps something like Survivor: Encino, or Celebrity Colonoscopies or Death to the Weakest Link.

News, you see, has long been a duty for the commercial networks. It is a profit-making duty, to be sure, but, with few exceptions, the profits are no longer large enough for the networks to perform their duty eagerly; the audiences for broadcast journalism, especially for the evening news programs, are getting smaller and older, and the networks want big and young and vapid.

As a result, as perverse as it might sound, Michael Eisner and his fellow mahatmas of corporate broadcast ownership are not foes of all-news cable, not at all; they are, deep in their hearts and far off the record, its biggest fans.

(The way it would work, see, is that there would be three contestants and an emcee, and behind the emcee would be this wall with four monitors on it, and on each of the monitors would be a colonoscopy scan and under it would be the name of a celebrity, but the scans and the names would not match, so it would be up to the contestants, as if they were taking a multiple choice test, to line up the star with the correct picture of his internal workings, and the person who got all four of them right in the shortest time would take home an enormous wad of cash, while the contestant who finished second would...)

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .

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