American news networks rang in the new year with a ticker tape parade of pink slips. Even before the February blahs settled in, news that CNN would shed 10% of its workforce in an effort to consolidate operations was followed by a similar announcement from NBC, and reports that ABC News would cut US$15 to $20 million from its annual budget. Despite allegations that such cuts are long overdue, they come at a time when increased competition has caused U.S. newscasters to reevaluate the news.
Gail Evans, executive VP of CNN Domestic Networks, explains cnn must compete with information channels such as Discovery and Lifetime, in addition to news broadcasters. "If you look at CNN’s competition as purely MSNBC or Fox, it’s an over-simplification," she says. This becomes particularly evident when there isn’t an immediate story to draw viewers to an all-news format. In recent years, CNN strayed from its roots as a breaking news channel and provided for these lulls with programs such as Newsstand. But the end of 2000 saw a return to talk show style formats. Says Evans, "Programming discussions at CNN revolve around getting back to the core of what we did and discovering that our audience cares about the information they get, and not the bells and whistles that make the information look more beautiful."
In a memo sent to CNN employees announcing staff cutbacks and changes to programming, Eason Jordan, head of newsgathering for CNN, put it another way: "We want more distinctive programming in primetime and personalities attached to those programs. That’s the future for us. It’s no longer the news that can be the star."
Unlike Fox and CNN, MSNBC is defining itself outside of breaking news with long-form docs. Says Michael Cascio, MSNBC’s VP of cable programming development, "[Docs] play to the strengths of the NBC news crews. It’s a very production-intensive organization, so it’s a natural fit. The success of that from a commercial standpoint is that MSNBC’s audience is considerably younger than that of CNN or Fox. For advertisers, that’s more desirable."
U.S. programmers aren’t just tweaking how they present the news, they’re reconsidering what is presented. As the number of information outlets increase, so does the competition for ad dollars. According to Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks, the results are serious: "In my opinion, ratings have been the death of television news in America." Specifically, Cramer says ratings are the demise of international news.
In a recent survey, the Associated Press asked its members to rank the top news stories of 2000. In the U.S., the results found the U.S. presidential election ranked number one, followed by the Elian Gonzalez custody dispute, and the USS Cole bombing. Outside of the U.S. the presidential election again comes first, but is followed by Milosevic’s troubles in Yugoslavia, and the Middle East peace process. "The American audience is a little myopic and doesn’t respond to international stories with quite as much vigor as it does to domestic stories," says Cascio. "Part of that is traditional isolation and part of that is the media. Most news stations still cover this stuff, but whether they cover it at length or in-depth is debatable."
Evans also agrees with Cramer, but both exempt CNN. "Nobody has an international presence like CNN, because everybody has cut back," she says. "The reason they’ve cut back is because they’re ratings driven and international news does not bring in ratings. The mandate here is you do it whether it brings in ratings or not." Evans does, however, concede that the AOL/Time Warner merger will likely change how CNN has traditionally operated. "This is no longer a small company owned by one man who can decide to spend $10 million because he likes a story," says Evans. "Now, stockholders will say ‘sorry, that’s not going to happen, we want to see a return on our investment’."
Even before the infamous merger was approved, CNN foreign correspondent Christian Amanpour argued for the sanctity of news programming and its place in big business. "It costs a little bit of money to produce good journalism, to travel, to investigate, to put compelling viewing on the screen and to give people a reason to watch us," she said. "It really makes you wonder about mega-mergers. You are running businesses, and we understand and accept that, but surely there must be a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent."