The annual levitation act known as the upfronts each year reflects an extravagantly orchestrated defiance of reality: Hence the TV network sales forces this week were chasing $10 billion in advertising commitments despite the fact that their primetime audience had fallen 38% over five years and that media news seemed obsessed with streaming.
The network news divisions represent a fascinating microcosm of this quest. They’re dredging for bigger revenues despite the fact that 93% of their viewers now get some, if not all, of their news online. While all hands benefited from last year’s “Trump Bump” in ratings, the newsies must arm themselves for a 2020 campaign starring a President who regards Fox News Channel as his sole outlet and who disdains talking with either Congress or the networks.
Lachlan Murdoch, chief of the slimmed-down Fox Corporation, signals that he intends to keep Fox News on script, while Charlie Collier, his chief of entertainment, smilingly reminds anyone who asks that “Fox News is 3,000 miles away.”
While Fox News sits stolidly atop the news pyramid, bottom-ranking CBS News is pitching an agenda of vigorous change at the upfronts with a new slate of anchors and presenters. Having been stereotyped as a boys club, the news division has appointed its first woman president, Susan Zirinsky, who in announcing her initiatives promised this week that “all this will bring attention to who we are.” Network critics argue that CBS instead should remind buyers of what it once was — the network of Murrow, Cronkite and the remarkable franchise called 60 Minutes.
Zirinsky is counting on Norah O’Donnell to energize a lagging CBS Evening News and Gayle King to charm those viewers on CBS This Morning who once leaned on Charlie Rose, a vividly different persona. At its peak, the morning show was generating an estimated $250 million in ad revenues. King, the show’s longtime co-anchor who recently signed a new contract, even went on Colbert this week to assure viewers that hard news could also be “fun.” A 40-year veteran of CBS News, Zirinsky has survived scandals decimating the careers of Rose and the gifted chief of 60 Minutes, Jeff Fager. The rap was that CBS News had become sexist and cultish, all of which was exacerbated by the opera surrounding CBS uber-czar Les Moonves. Under Moonves’ reign, CBS registered 11 years as the most watched network.
Some months ago I sat down with the then-CBS News president, David Rhodes, and asked him how he was planning to deal with these intrigues, while also emulating some of the moves being pushed by NBC – expanded investigative reporting, email newsletters and other digital initiatives. Even though dark clouds were looming, Rhodes either didn’t see them or wouldn’t admit to them, and within a few weeks he too was history.
A key challenge confronting the evening news formats, of course, is how to cover a Trump presidency without being consumed by it. I diligently visited CBS News on successive nights this week and found its pedestrian coverage torn between supposedly “original” reporting and the demands of the marketplace. Its opening 12-minute news allocation is shortly all but devoured by some 21 commercials (national and local), 11 of which were for various pharmaceuticals, each wallowing in admonitions about dreaded side effects. Little wonder that, year after year, ratings of the network news shows slide as resolutely as those of the Oscars.
Somehow, while other networks have plowed along stealthily, CBS has continued to foment its melodramas. Walter Cronkite came to symbolize anchoring integrity, but his coverage of the Vietnam War put him in conflict with the network brass. The anchoring epochs of Katie Couric and Dan Rather had their operatic moments, but none as dramatic as the 20-year reign of Don Hewitt, the brilliant if tyrannical founder of 60 Minutes. Having been a guest on the show on several occasions, I found the atmosphere to be exhilarating but lethal. And, sure, it felt like a boys club — Hewitt yelled at everyone, but his dealings with women created complaints about sexism that persisted even after his demise.
Hence CBS, at the upfronts, doesn’t really want to remind us of “who we are” but “who we intend to become” – a fortress of strength in the deadly and high-stakes Trump Media wars.
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