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The Koppel Topple

Do not ask for whom the ticker scrolls, Ted. It scrolls for thee: Why Nightline's troubles may presage a news-dinosaur extinction.

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I am going to attempt the unprecedented feat of explaining everything there is to know about network news and about whether and in what form it might continue and what this might mean both for the general culture and for the media business, and, too, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. And why we care.

This last point may be the key one.

In recent weeks, I've had numerous communications from nameless and aggrieved citizens overwrought about the fate of Ted Koppel and hence, it seems, the republic. There is a great feeling of loss here -- of corporate interests undermining important American values and traditions. I, too, shared this sense of helplessness about Koppel's torture and possible martyrdom until I remembered that I haven't watched Nightline in several years. While I value the idea of Koppel -- quality is the word almost all of my callers use -- I find the graveness of his voice, the weight of his concerns, and the certainty of his disapproval just too annoying.

In fact, I am not all that interested in network news in any form, or rather I am interested in it as most people are -- as a utility. It does its job well if I don't have to pay attention to how it does it. It's a background hum.

But network news is the true center of the media business's concern with itself (news divisions exist within a ten-block radius of each other in Manhattan -- what's more, television newspeople are the most famous people in the media business). It's our superego. Hence, we grant it enormous powers of self-dramatization. Barbara Walters makes news expressing her solidarity with Ted Koppel. David Letterman, in some weirdly patronizing remarks, made headlines by expressing solidarity, too (Letterman's decision to stay at CBS, after he'd instigated the brouhaha, was at least in part motivated by his wanting to avoid being seen as the agent of Koppel's demise). As dramatic is Diane Sawyer's failure to express her support. We find ourselves paying attention even if we have no reason to pay attention.

What's more, Koppel's adversaries -- those infamous network suits -- are so unattractive, or for so long have been portrayed (not least of all by David Letterman) as among the cruelest and stupidest dregs of humankind, that it is very hard not to take sides in this battle and fear, once again, that we will see the death of the news.

But before the funeral, the lesson . . .

Network news came into being because broadcasters agreed to deliver public-service programming in return for being granted a license to use the public's airwaves. The networks lost money doing this (in fact, never intended to make money) but, in an unforeseen development, got back what they spent, many times over, by becoming the nation's central news source and hence achieving more stature and clout than perhaps has ever been achieved by any industry. News even came to define the networks as the networks. It gave them a voice -- and a face. What's more, the news and its noncontroversial probity became a hedge or balance against the crap the networks were otherwise making money on (which crap and profits they always feared would be regulated in some way). Cronkite in some sense negated The Beverly Hillbillies. The news side wrapped itself in moral virtue, which the business side accepted (and benefited from) until, on occasion -- out of rancor or worry -- it undermined. Paley firing Murrow.

Oddly, these incursions by management into the news side probably helped bolster this sense of the news division as a significant moral redoubt, and obscure the obvious condition that network news has always been reductive and mealy-mouthed.

It is important to note that during this period, the networks were as profitable as any enterprise has ever been.Flashing forward: the past is a heavy burden.

In the twenty-first century, network news divisions continue to produce the news for a sweeping mass-market audience. And indeed, the evening news shows command 10 million viewers at each of the three major networks. Ted Koppel draws almost 4 million viewers every night (whereas his cable competitors might have a few hundred thousand viewers). But the network-news audience gets smaller and smaller every year (of course, entertainment programs at the three networks have been in similar decline).

Network news programming continues to be dominated by faces from another era. (Koppel made his reputation in the late seventies by covering the Iranian hostage crisis every night; in the eighties, he was talked about -- seriously -- as secretary of State.) These faces (along with Koppel, Jennings, Brokaw, Rather, Barbara Walters, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer) are the networks' brand identifiers. They all made their reputations in a three-network world. This means -- drumbeat -- they are more famous than anyone has ever been and more famous than anyone will ever be. They are both obsolete (all of them with an increasingly bewildered look -- the Georgie Jessels of our age) and yet at the same time necessary. No one will ever be as recognizable as they are -- the hum will never be so steady without them.

Then, too, the news culture at the three networks continues to be enthralled by what Randy Rothenberg at Ad Age calls "the Lippmann-Murrow-eat-your-grits tradition." News -- television newspeople want you to know they believe -- is an earnest business. This creates the voice, the gaze, the white-male certainty, that most everyone finds not just silly but out-of-it. The nightly Letterman or Jon Stewart take on the news (you could, if you wanted to, get your entire news feed from Stewart) is probably much closer to the conversational and familiar way many Americans regard the day's public events than is Koppel's measured sternness. This is at least partly what the unfortunate ABC executive meant by calling Koppel "irrelevant" -- he's lost the connection. He's just a scold. (Of note: In the middle of the Koppel imbroglio, there were rumors that ABC's two most self-serious, out-of-it-seeming anchors -- Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts -- would shortly be retired.)

And yet while news divisions continue to be regarded (both by the news divisions themselves and by network executives and other bloviators) as the moral cost center of the networks, and network news programming continues to be directed at that great and mythical heartland audience, everyone also knows that a counter-reality exists.

For one thing, news divisions, rather than being a special protectorate of the networks, somewhere along the way became an integral part of the networks' earnings structure (the development of the news magazines and of Roone Arledge's star system at ABC are the keystones here). What's more, the networks could own the news in a way that they were legally prevented from owning most entertainment. News, or what has increasingly replaced the news -- nonfiction entertainment -- became the networks' central business. Added to that, in the eighties, when the first generation of network proprietors sold out to financial interests, lots of the news-gathering resources were squeezed out of the news division -- with far lower costs, you had greater profits, with, it turned out, no demand for more and better information. What's more, you had a dramatic rise in what was paid to the news stars (the inequities between star network news talent and the rest of the news department are as great as any in corporate America). Indeed, internally, the discussion about news entirely changed -- from an ethical-moral-service concern to a forthright business analysis (still, as though at some Manchurian Candidate signal, newspeople can return to insisting that network news is a moral patrimony that they would certainly die for).

And then, at the time almost unnoticed by the networks, there was the rise of cable, which all but destroyed the central thesis of American television: The bigger the audience, the more value you had. But it was destroyed in the cruelest of ways -- it was only half destroyed. Networks were left with an audience that was too big to throw away but that was increasingly undesirable (this coincided with the rise of the new science -- called demos -- of audience desirability). Sports addicts were going to sports stations, news junkies to CNN, celebrity gluttons to celebrity-news outlets, rabid Republicans to Fox, weather nuts to the Weather Channel, etc. Leaving the impression that the only people left watching network news are too comatose to turn the dial (the impression is that they are still turning dials).

Which brings us to the hidden-life-of-the-networks analysis. It goes that not only are networks not bastions of profitability anymore, but they are, in a real sense, loss leaders. They make money because they own stations and because they can retail content across what's called multiple platforms -- cable stations, syndication venues, and international outlets. But the concept of making money because tens of millions of people watch ABC, CBS, and NBC is over with.

Now, Ted Koppel not only has the advantage of high seriousness in the public-relations war over the future of Nightline and network news but also has the advantage that it is Michael Eisner and Bob Iger who are trying to dump him. It is the commonplace assumption in the industry and press that there may be no two people who have ever run a network who know less about running one. Therefore, if they are doing the dumping, then, obviously, dumping Ted must be not only the morally bankrupt but also the knuckleheaded thing to do.

But the future happens to even the stupid and incompetent.

The dumping of Ted Koppel may be the first clear sign that it is not necessarily the network news that is going away but the three-horseman concept of the networks themselves.

By any logical and reasonable measure, ABC and Disney should not be in the news business. They don't have the stomach or the temperament for it. Their dream and strategy, whether smart or dumb, is to be an entertainment supermarket. Not incidentally, the laws have changed for networks so that they can now own and therefore forever benefit from their own entertainment "products."

As important, ABC can't really compete in the news business anymore -- in some sense, it's already gotten out of it.

ABC, whether by happenstance, incompetence, or calculation, doesn't own or have much access to multiple news platforms (except for its sports-news network, ESPN -- its most profitable division). NBC, on the other hand, has MSNBC, CNBC, and assorted foreign news outlets. Among the other benefits of this arrangement for NBC: On an accounting basis alone, a show produced at NBC, which will be aired, all or in part, on its cable sisters, would cost the NBC network one third what it would cost stand-alone ABC.

CBS, in its own consideration of this problem, debated merging its news division with CNN (some years ago, there was also talk of CBS News executives buying the news division). It declined to do so -- because it either saw some future strategy or was hostage to past traditions -- because it didn't want to give up control of the news operation to CNN. Now ABC is a likely candidate for a similar deal. On the other hand, NBC is often thought to be the acquisition deal of choice for AOL Time Warner, which, aligned with CNN, would make it the indisputable powerhouse news operation.

What you have, then, is the belated idea of the networks turning into something other than the three networks. They will have different specialties, different reasons for being, different business models. Different ideas about news. Duh.

If you are, however, looking to feel better about this, rest assured that Michael Eisner and Bob Iger, out in Hollywood, are probably quaking in their boots at the storm of opprobrium they've invited by daring to question the sacrosanctness of network news. This is what's called the handling issue. Corporate types never understand that while they can mess with newspeople on a daily basis and they'll take it lying down, you don't ever want to mess with their symbols.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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