This Time, It’s War

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Quarterly Nielsen numbers for the Big Three flagship newscasts have ABC World News With Charles Gibson cementing its position as No. 1 and both NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams and CBS Evening News With Katie Couric continuing to lose audience.

It’s a state of affairs that has the suits at CBS and NBC understandably nervous, especially given that both places switched out executive producers not too long ago after each began trending down, to say nothing about the tens of millions of advertising dollars at stake.

My suggestion to all in the nightly-news game, even leader World News, is that they get a lot more aggressive in their coverage of the Iraq War and related stories. I’d advise them to provide even more graphic coverage of what’s actually going on in Iraq and to never shy away from the gruesome toll the war is taking.

The story from the frontlines needs to be told no matter how terrifying the visuals can be, exactly because it can be so difficult to take in. More than 3,600 Americans have died and 26,000 have been wounded. One recent estimate puts the number of those soliders returning with post-traumatic stress disorder at 40%. And let’s not forget the thousands of Iraqis, so many of whom are not combatants, who’ve also lost their lives.

I’m not suggesting that any of these news organizations have abandoned Iraq. A recent study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that all three newscasts spend about a quarter of their airtime on the war, splitting that coverage evenly between the policy debate and the situation on the ground. But not one of these organizations has set out to own what is without doubt the most important story of the young millennium.

I know the arguments against going all the way on this one. The coverage costs millions already. It’s too painful and depressing to watch. Viewers will turn away in droves. That’s what you’ll hear in candid moments from network news executives.

There’s the danger factor, too. More than 100 journalists and support staff have died covering Iraq, and we’ve seen some of the networks’ finest correspondents—ABC’s Bob Woodruff and CBS’ Kimberly Dozier leap to mind—nearly lose their lives to bring the story home.

Even if all of that is true, the case against more coverage can just as easily work to support the idea of doing much, much more. The journalists in the field have done a great deal more reporting than ever sees air, so no more money needs to be spent in that endeavor.

But the real sell here is that whoever does own this story will be able to call itself the true network of record. Be purely mercantile about this if you want to be: The audience that the true news leader on the Iraq story will have will be one of quality that advertisers will pay a premium for. Don’t believe me? Look at the demographics and audience growth of that old-media stalwart National Public Radio and such newscasts as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Both have seen steady ratings growth since 9/11.

The knee-jerk notion that Americans won’t tune to this is short-sighted. It would be hard to look at but just as hard to look away, as was the case with Vietnam. These are stories of solemnity, patriotism, waste and heroism that could be told better on a nightly basis.

Given our 24/7-news-cycle environment, it’s essential to provide something that takes full advantage of the large audience these newscasts still maintain and the promotional muscle their networks have to flex. In the parlance of Madison Avenue, let “the unique selling proposition” be the best reportage about the most important story of our time. Someone should just dig in. There’s little to lose and much to gain.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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