If you follow the media, you have probably seen a dozen factoids this week decrying that the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric has hit an all-time ratings low. Since we live in a “Top 10,” everybody loves a winner society, many armchair television programmers are feeling a certain sense of schadenfreude. You should all be ashamed of yourselves!
Network television is a zero-sum game. You can’t win unless someone else loses. Even so, second place is not really first loser — everyone reading this could live very nicely having the second or even third highest rated show in any network time slot.
Just before the show premiered on September 5, 2006, I wrote an article entitled, “What We Can Learn From Katie.” People were touting the historical significance of a woman as anchor of a major network newscast, an accomplishment to be sure. But equally as interesting was the fact that it was the first major network news show launched in the post-Internet era and the production design included every advanced media trick in the book.
Aside from an online simulcast, the show was to include:
- Couric & Company-a blog exploring the day’s news through links to exclusive free video, with contributions from CBS News correspondents around the world.
- Eye to Eye-a daily, on-demand Web-exclusive feature hosted by Couric offering extended interviews with top newsmakers. The segment will be posted on CBSNews.com by mid-afternoon and will be available for audio and video podcast and on iTunes.
- CBS News First Look with Katie Couric -a web-exclusive rundown, available early each weekday afternoon, of the stories being considered for coverage on that night’s broadcast.
- Katie Couric’s Notebook-a one-minute look at a top story or issue by Couric, available as an audio and video podcast and
For all of us in the advanced media space, this was very exciting stuff. It was the first time we truly saw old-school television news producers embrace “new” media on a grand scale. Sean McManus, President, CBS News and Sports, explained his reasons for including all of the additional production elements, “For people who can’t be in front of their televisions when the CBS Evening News is on, they can now watch the program live on their computers.”
At the time, I thought Sean might be right for the wrong reasons. They might find an audience online. If they did, it would probably be a new audience, not TV watchers who missed the show. But, that being said — there was no reason to believe that this type of content belonged there. I was much more excited about the stuff they were specifically creating for the new medium. That was then.
It is almost a year later (about a decade in Internet time) and things have changed. YouTube, Social Networks, Mash-ups, Peer-assisted Streaming Mesh Networks have all become mainstream since the show premiered. From a technological standpoint, it’s a different world, but not from a television programmer’s point of view.
Television is a mature medium with a very specific business model. The goal is to aggregate the largest possible audience, measure it as accurately as possible and sell airtime during your show to advertisers who want to reach your audience. No matter how many other things you may want to do for your business, if a show is going to be on television, it needs to get a big television audience.
It may sound like I am stating the obvious, but each week I take a bunch of meetings from people who want to create new television shows that include vast, multi-disciplined, multi-media experiences. The pitches share many common threads, but none more common than the wealth of distribution platforms and merchandise that can be associated with the property. Typically the new television show concept is accompanied by descriptions of other value chains such as online clips, long form online, short form for mobile video, blogs, podcasts, text alerts, a radio show, newspaper columns and my favorite, T-shirts and logo merchandise. With all of the bases covered, they always assure me that their new business is going to be successful. The short answer is, “only if you have a hit television show.”
There are many aphorisms that come to mind here, but let’s just say that the overwhelming lesson we have learned from the CBS Evening News is simply, “First, make popular television.” Not “good” television, “popular” television. That’s job one. If you do that, we might be able to learn something about the value of advanced media platforms that support and surround the property.
Which begs the question, Is there room for three nightly network news programs in 2007? Is this where people want to get their news and information? Is an early evening recap of the day’s events necessary? There are at least six 24-hour cable channels dedicated to news and information and I can get the headlines from HN every 20 minutes? I can get alerts from trusted news sources on my PDA or computer, I can customize my news gathering online using iGoogle and do a better job for myself than any programmer can ever do for me. Has this particular form of newscasting simply outlived its usefulness?
Usually the last organization to do something ends its life with virtually 100 percent market share. Buggy whips are the example most often used. (I don’t have any statistics on the last full-time factory dedicated to buggy whip manufacturer to go chapter 11, but I’m sure they were the “best practices,” most competitive, most popular manufacturer in their business.) However, the last evening newscast to be canceled will not have 100% share, not even close … it will go off the air the moment someone figures out a way to make more money or draw a bigger audience in that time slot. I wonder when that will be?