When I tell my children that when I was their age, there were only a few channels on TV, they look at me the way I’m sure I looked at my grandfather when he told me he could buy lunch for a nickel. I’m not even sure they could rattle off “ABC, NBC and CBS” if I asked them to name the one-time “Big 3.”
But, this week, like we have seen recently in the car business in Detroit, the Big 3 showed that they can rise to the occasion. When it came to the most accurate reporting, the most solid analysis void of hyperbole or speculation, compelling storytelling from the field and tone-appropriate anchoring, the three “legacy networks” led the way on TV, every step of the way. The highlights include NBC’s Justice Correspondent Pete Williams batting 1.000 with his sourced reporting and CBS’ John Miller, who has split his career between broadcast news and law enforcement, providing measured insight into what was happening behind the scenes. Their websites were also complete, easy-to-navigate, up-to-date and straightforward. Overall, it seemed they were the most careful on what they reported via Twitter.
Meanwhile, on the “cable channels,” CNN had its widely-reported gaffes and subsequent PR issues (see the blog post on that below) and Friday night’s climactic standoff and arrest was “anchored” on Fox News Channel by slugfest host Bill O’Reilly and shock TV pioneer Geraldo Rivera and MSNBC’s coverage was “anchored” by political debater Chris Matthews.
If, as I wrote last week, “cable news” gives viewers the choice between “the conservative channel,” “the liberal channel” and “the channel that gets it wrong,” then it would seem “network news” would be the place for straight news coverage. Not so fast. The network morning shows are filled with content like celebrity gossip, domestic murder trials from around the country, missing young white women and New York City weather. CBS is experimenting with a Charlie Rose-anchored, news-focused show, but they have never really been able draw a competitive audience in the morning with any talent pairing or format. In the evening, the news broadcasts are tied to 1960s lifestyles with a 6:30pm broadcast. Prime Time generally has magazine-style shows, but fewer of those then anytime in the last 20 years.
Maybe one of the networks will realize its opportunity and replace sitcoms in Prime Time with a straight newscast for viewers who are busy during the day and want more than empty debate at night. But it’s expensive and risky and would be foreign to so many who have become accustomed to what national TV news has become.
Oh well. It was nice to have the “Big 3” back for a few days. Hopefully, their budgets will still be in tact the next time we need them.