Good News for the News Biz

The elections will drive ratings, but there is plenty of other drama coming in 2012—both in front of and behind the cameras
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Not until you stack the events up—the revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria; the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan; the killing of Osama bin Laden; the devastating tornadoes and hurricanes in the U.S.—does one realize the sheer volume of news that transpired in 2011.

“We have never seen a year like this in international news,” Tony Maddox, executive VP and managing director of CNN International, said at an industry event in early December. “We have been stretched to the full.”

And that was just in front of the camera.

Behind the scenes at TV news organizations, the stories were just as numerous, with new leadership installed at CBS News; the very public move of Katie Couric to ABC and Scott Pelley’s succession at the CBS Evening News; Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Meredith Vieira all leaving their posts; and yet another set of CBS morning anchors being announced.

If history is any guide, expect more changes, personnel and otherwise, in TV news in 2012, including this list of the biggest potential shifts to watch.

The Morning Race

Tightens Under the leadership of Ben Sherwood, ABC News has been gunning for network news leader NBC, nowhere as aggressively as the mornings. Good Morning America added anchors Lara Spencer and Josh Elliott, and though the venerable Today hasn’t skipped a beat since Vieira’s departure, GMA clearly will smell blood if Matt Lauer decides to exit when his contract expires at the end of 2012. That leaves NBC to plan for a possible succession at the toprated morning show, with Ryan Seacrest the latest name to re-enter that rumor mill.

CBS, for decades a distant third in the mornings, is opting to no longer copy the Today format, instead modeling its upcoming CBS This Morning more like another NBC News entry, Morning Joe— with the help of that show’s former executive producer, Chris Licht. With the odd-couple pairing of Charlie Rose and Gayle King joining the broadcast, CBS will see what a morning program focused more on news than cooking and fashion segments will do for its ratings. (The industry’s guess: Not much).

All Politics Is Personal

The upcoming presidential election is already providing constant fodder for the cable news networks and will continue to be one of the biggest editorial stories of 2012. As with the CNN/YouTube and upcoming NBC News/Facebook debates, news organizations are looking for more ways to get viewers involved in a political year that finds a majority of Americans dissatis! ed with their elected of! cials.

“I think increasingly what we’re seeing in television right now is it will become more and more personal,” Anne Sweeney, co-chairman, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, said at B&C’s On- Screen Media Summit in December in regards to ABC News’ deal with Yahoo! “I think it’s a sign of things to come.”

ABC News used that partnership in its live series of Republican presidential candidate interviews in November. Figuring out the right way to use digital platforms is a big goal of the coming year, said another network news chief.

Continued Evolution at CNN

More than a year into his tenure, CNN/U.S. executive VP Ken Jautz has changed nearly every hour of primetime, and we’re guessing he’s not done. Piers Morgan, approaching his one-year anniversary at the network, will soon have to justify his so-so ratings against his yearago averages instead of Larry King’s. The addition of Erin Burnett has also done little to perk up CNN’s numbers, and while Jautz told B&C in November he’s “happy with the lineup the way it is” in regards to Anderson Cooper at 8 and 10 p.m., repeats in primetime are simply not a competitive long-term strategy.

Stemming the Tide

Network news got a welcome surprise headline in September when reports said all three of the evening newscasts gained viewers in 2011 after nine years of declines.

“That is something that a lot of people were not predicting,” says NBC News president Steve Capus.

The rise was no doubt fueled by the busy news year and the fact that among Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Pelley, there is more variety in the newscasts than before and hence potential for a larger audience share.

The key for 2012 is to keep it. CBS News chairman Jeff Fager, who has seen the Evening News under Pelley bring back some of the viewers it lost under Couric, expects to see that number continue to creep up. Combined with a presidential election year and issues such as the continued unrest in the Middle East, conditions are ripe for sustained viewership at all the networks.

“I think we’re perfectly positioned to really capture a growing audience in 2012,” Capus says.

Other Questions To Be Answered in 2012

• What will happen to morning TV when Matt Lauer and Joe Scarborough become available?

• Can ABC’s GMA or World News finally creep past NBC’s time-period leaders?

• Will other prominent news talent follow the defections of Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck to smaller outlets?

• Will Roger Ailes’ “course correction” at Fox News edge it back toward the mainstream?

E-mail comments to amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

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