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One of the enduring images of longtime CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite is of him taking off his glasses as he announces that President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. The presentation of news today bears little resemblance to the early days of broadcasting.It was hardly the most important story of the week. In fact, it wasn’t really news at all. For a dwindling group of us, it was just confirmation of what we have known for a long time.
Still, the headline, “The ‘Disneyfication’ of ABC World News with Diane Sawyer,” was a downer to someone who spent 30-plus years as a correspondent for that network — almost a lifetime really.
The story was on Forbes.com, written by media contributor Max Robins.
He says, “The ‘Disneyfication’ of ABC News is complete. So claims a content analysis (of the three major network evening newscasts) by the Tyndall Report.”
According to this report, “‘World News’ took a major leap into the world of infotainment in 2013 compared to previous years and spent dramatically less time covering hard news than its competition. For example, on the Boston Marathon bombing, the most covered story of the year, ABC gave it roughly a third less time than CBS and NBC.”
Robins says, “Tellingly, two of ABC News’ correspondents who got the most face time on ‘World News’ were Ginger Lee, whose beat is the weather, and Paula Ferris, who specializes in consumer features.”
He goes on to quote Andrew Tyndall, president of ADT Research and publisher of the Tyndall Report: “The ABC News of Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Charles Gibson is over. In more than 25 years of monitoring the three network nightly newscasts, I cannot remember seeing such a radical shift in its definition of news.”
Robins makes the point that while the evening newscasts have lost about half their audience during the past 20 years, together they still draw an average of 22 million viewers and bring in between $400 and $500 million in advertising revenue each year. He then picks up the theme of his commentary.
“The so-called Disneyfication of ABC’s news division has been evolving for years. It’s most glaringly apparent on ‘Good Morning America,’ which almost two years ago began beating NBC’s long dominant ‘Today’ in the lucrative morning news wars.” To further his argument, Robins writes that after Koppel’s departure, “Nightline” was downgraded and then pushed back to 12:30 a.m. to make room for the Jimmy Kimmel show.
In conclusion, Robins defends Tyndall’s research — some of which ABC had questioned — and adds this parting shot, “It is irrefutable that (Tyndall’s) data does denote a big shift in ‘World News’ towards an approach that the corporate powers-that-be see improving ratings and driving bucks to the bottom line. Does that mean we can call what was once the network’s flagship newscast ‘ABC DisneyWorld News’? Watch and decide if the mouse ears fit.”
As I said at the outset, none of this comes as news to me or to those of my former colleagues in retirement. Through the years, we have watched all three network newscasts become only shadows of their former selves — in service to the demands of the corporate bottom line. Perhaps, it would help if I explained specifically what that has meant to network television in my former area — international news coverage.
I long ago gave up on the American broadcast networks as satisfactory sources for foreign news. While they still have a few good news people in the field, their once significant commitment to cover overseas news is simply no longer there.
Case in point: In the mid-1980s, when I was ABC’s senior foreign correspondent, the London bureau was the network’s international headquarters and support center for about a dozen smaller foreign bureaus in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. We had our own building in central London — nearby to the BBC and ITN, with whom we had cooperative agreements.
The facilities for live transmissions and global satellite connections were state of the art. In addition to correspondents and camera crews with years of overseas experience covering wars and foreign news, there was a 24/7 news desk. Each news program had its own field producers, there were tape editors, researchers, engineers and accountants — altogether about 200 people. If an important story happened anytime, anywhere in the world, ABC News London was immediately on it.
When I last checked a couple of years ago, the ABC News London bureau was housed in some rented rooms in an office near Heathrow Airport. There were about a dozen people on staff.
There are two fundamental reasons for this dramatic shift. One is technological. The proliferation of viewing options and news sources — from cable television to the Internet, totally changed the landscape for broadcast news. The three networks no longer totally dominate the market.
But the other change may have been even more important — and that was the new business model. Into the 1960s, network news divisions cost more to operate than they earned in advertising revenue. But with more air time, news programs eventually became very successful and went from being loss leaders to cash cows.
That’s when ratings began to really matter. It is also when Wall Street became interested, which led to the eventual takeover of each network by large, publicly traded corporations with no background — and no interest — in news. For these new corporate owners, it made business sense drastically to shrink foreign news coverage. Never mind, that this seriously degraded their news divisions.
Likewise, their company’s stock price came to dictate the content of news programs — based on the questionable premise that the softer the news, the better the ratings and profits. The loss of network news credibility doesn’t matter to the suits.
Obviously, I’m not happy about this evolution of network news, but it was probably as inevitable as change itself. Baby boomers often opine nostalgically that if anchormen such as Walter Cronkite (once America’s most trusted man) were still around, things would be different. I fear not. Even in the “good old days,” Cronkite was forced into retirement because his replacement Dan Rather was considered hot — and Walter was not.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News.MORE IN Perspective
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