Sleeping Through History


Someday, in some history of television that will be available on the Web, somebody will point out that on the night this nation tipped the vote to make an African-American a major-party candidate's presumptive nominee for president for the first time in history, no broadcast network except one seemed to take more than cursory notice.

Except for ABC, which gave 24 minutes' worth of coverage to this historic event, CBS, NBC and Fox could have barely cared less. Of course, there are CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, where coverage droned on, but historically the broadcast networks have assumed their sense of responsibility. Not today. Had Hillary Clinton surpassed the delegate count it would have also been just as monumental, and probably just as disregarded by broadcasters.

A reader can be the critic and say, “Yes, but no one watches the network newscasts for breaking news anymore.” A demographically minded viewer might say, “This historical stuff only matters to old people. Younger Americans don't care that Barack Obama [or Hillary Clinton] captured the nomination.”

How we disagree with that analysis. If nothing else, the Clinton-Obama tussle has excited a slumbering younger generation of voters to get involved. They happen to be in the same demographic that has drifted away from broadcast network television.

And broadcast television is still the place millions of Americans turn for news, even if they are now consistently disappointed. Last Tuesday night, the primaries took a back seat to NBC's clip show, Outrageous Moments. It is hard to understand why NBC could barely break away from the show for the primary results.

CBS interrupted a 48 Hours Mystery about a murder that happened two years ago, but only reported Obama's apparent lock on the nomination for a couple of minutes. Why? CBS still needs to promote Katie Couric. Isn't this the place and time to do it, particularly with those younger viewers she was supposed to attract?

A very long time ago (in the Kennedy era) NBC President Robert Kintner invented the phrase, “CBS Plus 30.” That meant, on nights of important breaking news, NBC would stay with the story a half-hour longer than CBS. Soon, NBC was the go-to network, for news at least.

These aren't those times, of course. There are hundreds of channels. But at a time in history when, for a change, Americans are “engaged” in the campaign (to use the advertising buzzword), it would make sense for the broadcast networks to satisfy that demand.

Except for Fox, network viewership declined by double digits in the past year. Maybe you can underestimate the taste of the American public. Maybe they expect more from their big broadcast networks, not less.

That public didn't get what they should have expected from the networks through the primary process. But the broadcast networks might find an audience yearning for real information. Last Tuesday night, except for ABC, we saw how far in the dark those networks are.