Singin' the News Blues
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/24/2005 8:00:00 PM
I don't believe I've ever heard more folks in the industry bemoaning the state of television news. Virtually everywhere, either the people running the joints appear on the way out, or they have just recently arrived. The result: Almost everyone in the game operates in a state of uncertainty.
Believe it. A day doesn't pass by when I don't hear about one of a long list of news executives with big bull's-eye targets on their backs. At NBC News, division President Neal Shapiro is all but out the door. With MSNBC not even third in the cable news race anymore (it's fourth, behind CNN's Headline News), there's also an ominous drumbeat about President Rick Kaplan. The recent slow start of The Situation With Tucker Carlson only exacerbated the situation with Kaplan. At least, nobody's making that kind of noise about CNBC President Mark Hoffman—but then, he's been on the job only since February, and when a new guy takes over, the rumors start about the people below him.
CBS News may be the most depressed and destabilized operation of all. CBS News President Andrew Heyward announced a couple of weeks ago his network's foray into 24-hour broadband news, but he faces massive challenges in taking on ABC, CNN and other players with more resources and deeper pockets that are already in that space. It has been four months since Dan Rather stepped down from third-place CBS Evening News, and no strategy for the post-Rather era has emerged, other than to keep Bob Schieffer in his temp job as the replacement anchor. And CBS' The Early Show remains a laggard in the morning-news race, despite the network's prime time strength. Somehow it wasn't a big surprise when nobody from the news division showed up at the critics' press tour in Los Angeles last week: There would have been uncomfortable questions and not much new at CBS News to use as a distraction.
“Everywhere you go in the news business, it just plain sucks,” says one agent who handles news talent. “When clients ask me what's the most stable place to work, I say ABC News—and it's not like that place is exactly a steady ship.”
True. Good Morning America is a credible challenger to Today, and long-running newsmagazines 20/20 and Primetime chug along. But with Peter Jennings battling cancer, there's uncertainty at ABC World News Tonight. Ted Koppel will remain at Nightline until December, and even now the show's producers are actively tinkering with the format, trying to rejuvenate the venerable newscast on the fly to ensure it has a future after Koppel's gone.
CNN is in the midst of its own transition period. Since last November, when Jon Klein took over the reins, there has been a revolving door of executive producers for various shows—in addition to all the other unrest stirred by the arrival of a new boss. Up-and-comer Bill Hemmer was pushed out of his American Morning anchor slot; he turned down a gig as CNN's White House correspondent and quit the network. Last week, Hemmer signed a three-year deal reportedly worth more than $1 million a year at Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, at CNN, the prime time lineup Klein inherited still lags way behind Fox's, despite the executive-producer changes. The network's sister channel, Headline News, has shown dynamic growth, almost entirely due to legal eagle Nancy Grace. But that, of course, prompts whispering about how long it will be before Grace bumps one of the also-rans out of a job at the mothership.
And then there's Fox News. From the outside looking in, Fox appears to be an island of stability in a crazy-competitive market. But how much growth is there in a mature business, even if you're the cable news leader? No wonder FNC Chairman Roger Ailes appears to be in no hurry to launch a Fox News financial channel. As the rest of the TV-news industry could tell him, change isn't always good.
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