Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Katie Can Get Her Groove Back

CBS Evening News has decades of experience on doing longer, more in-depth segments on hard news stories. The late Ed Bradley's superlative and sober piece on the Greek November 17th terrorist group for "60 Minutes" serves as a prime example of what broadcast journalism at its best is capable. So why not extend that successful model of the CBS News brand into the Evening News. The days of a network newscast purporting to capture all the pertinent information on the planet in a 22-minute broadcast is over.

Chances are viewers have already been feasting on news nuggets at their desktop workstations or the home throughout the day. By 5 pm most people have an outline, however rough, of the days news stories. Before the internet and Drudge and CNN.com and all the rest of the news gatekeepers and blasts and news alerts, workers generally didn't have this kind of familiarity with the world's events. Those were the days when the network news was god. The networks have correspondents that put things into perspective, and interviews with the primary players, but as more and more young people follow the news online, in real-time, the value of what the networks can offer them by way of short, packed bits of information can seem -- forgive me -- redundant. What the Big Three don't give the young information age audience is a deeper context of the more pressing issues, the backstory, the Page A1 above-the-fold stories. That's how Katie Couric can get her groove back.

In the beginning we all watched Katie Couric's debut. Charlie Gibson's recently moved into first place mainly because he is taking viewers from CBS Evening News. Let's say that he's "borrowing" them. The competition between the Big Three networks using the same tried-and-true formula in an age when that formula is compromised is foolish. Why not grow the pool of viewers by offering something new and, most important, honoring the CBS News tradition. A 22-minute single-story news broadcast would do well to honor the tradition of CBS News and offer greater insight into this rapidly evolving world in these harrowing times.

This is, to be sure, an optimistic view of our Attention Deficit society. I'm still betting on Man's higher nature ultimately prevailing over lowest common denominator fare in our common culture. Imagine, say, Katie doing a long segment on the risurgimento of the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative. After Lara Logan or Kimberly Dozier does the backstory and Israeli PM Ehud Ohlmert's present positive view of the plan, Katie could direct questions to CBS commentators or Middle East experts like Tom Friedman (Who, incidentally announced the initiative).

A single-story news program would be bold. CBS is admirably committed to Katie Couric, as it should be. No one doubts that given enough time she could surmount the forbidding learning curve of the Evening News as she did in the morning. A 22-minute single-story news program may win them back, and more viewers besides. Making these newscasts and their more interesting bite-sized moments embed-friendly to the political blogosphere so that they can be part of The Discussion could go a long ways in the Digital strategy for CBS News. Some of the issues that are of interest to me that seem ideal for a long-form program are, in part:

Why is Zimbabwe's economy degenerating into chaos? What happened to America's auto industry? Who are the main players in the French election? What is Africa's role in the War on Terror? What are the long-term regional effects of Japanese Prime Minister Abe's denial of sex slavery during WW2? How do the varying Democrat Party Presidential aspirants' Health Care plans differ? What exactly caused the financial scare on the world market a few weeks ago? How would the five battalions help secure American interests in the Iraq War? How does petrol fuel tyrannies? Can Immigration be fixed?

All of these are questions that are worthy of a full 22-minute discussion. And such a consistent discussion of these and the other great issues of our day, mixing together the country's experts and the CBS News crew, could do a great deal to help Katie surmount the Evening News learning curve.

No comments: