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Why I Like Les and the Katie Couric Experiment

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Written By

October 21st, 2007

The following comes from "Kathy" in Lee's Summit:

CBS’ Les Moonves

Dear Robert,

Why do you love Les Moonves and the Katie Couric experiment? Moonves is a moron. Couric is a moron. Your a moron. Love, Kathy

Kathy probably has built a shrine to Dan Rather in her bedroom, but I'm sure I love being called a moron by someone who doesn't know the difference between you're and your as much as any network mogul.

I like Dan Rather and I like Katie Couric. I don't care about either's politics really. I don't like politics at all. I don't like the parties or the system, but I can't think of a better one or a way to change it so I just keep my trap shut about it.

Nothing about "the system" has been unfair to me personally, so that's a fairly easy approach for me to take. I know a lot of people get really heated and frothy over politics, but I try to save that and all my trash talk for sports.

I like the Katie Couric experiment. Why? Because news has a problem. I don't care if it's broadcast, cable or the local news (and oh yeah, newspapers!). They all have the same problem: almost everyone under the age of 40 who wants to know "who won the game" or what the weather is going to be like tomorrow - they just look it up on the internet.

For years and years prior to the Internet, big media controlled the "flow of information". It was timed beautifully, "Your favorite team went to triple overtime in the most exciting game of the year!! Who won? Find out - right after this commercial break." On a guess, local news still operates like that.

Overwhelmingly the people who watch broadcast evening news (or cable news for that matter) are 55 and over. Calling a spade a spade, the older I get, the bigger a problem I have with ageism. But if age is really a component in the capitalistic equation (and surely it must be) then that's just the way it is. It seems like for CBS and other broadcast news, the focus is on 25-54 and most of the viewers aren't.

So, Les "fires" Dan, hires Katie and the media proclaims (based on the raw numbers) that ratings are a disaster. Since most of the people watching the CBS Evening News were over 55 to begin with, you can figure that most of the ratings attrition also came from that group. A group that didn't matter that much to advertisers anyway. So it's not really a "disaster" - it's not good news either, necessarily. But let me break it down for you: broadcast evening news ratings have been plummeting for longer than some of you have been alive.

Historical Network News Viewers, 1970-2007

You look at that chart and as a network exec I think you have a few choices:

  • Let's milk this for as long as we possibly can. If advertisers are paying us and we can make money, fine. When they aren't (as it approaches 0) we'll do something else.
  • Let's see if there's anything we can do to reverse this trend
  • Let's see if there's anything we can do to stabilize this trend

Within this is the bigger issue of "uh, most of our viewers are 60 years old and the advertisers don't want to pay for that, how do we get younger viewers?" If CBS lost 4 million people 60 and over and brought in 2 million viewers who are under the age of 55, it may have lost 2 million net viewers but it will have improved the overall business.

I believe this is what Les Moonves and CBS is attempting to do with Couric. Whether it winds up working or not isn't particularly relevant to me. I admire the experimenting and think it is the right thing to do, especially with the huge legacy the news division has at CBS.

It won't shock me if 5 or 10 years down the road it's replaced with a product that is half ESPN SportsCenter, half TMZ celebrity news. Why? Because that content is much cheaper to produce and it attracts the youthful demos that advertisers covet. But you can't just kill the News division at CBS without giving the "Hey, we tried everything we could think of, but it didn't work out." It seems to me that if it's necessary at some point to give that speech, Moonves will at least be able to give it sincerely.

 
  • Bill Gorman

    My guess is that the Broadcast evening news will change little over the next 5 to 10 years. (has it changed much over the last 5 or 10?)

    One simple reason is inertia, but I also think the “Big 3″ networks continue them as legitimacy exercises. Their “Temples of News” that set them apart from the hoi polloi of the rest of the television channels.

  • Bill Gorman

    My guess is that the Broadcast evening news will change little over the next 5 to 10 years. (has it changed much over the last 5 or 10?)

    One simple reason is inertia, but I also think the “Big 3″ networks continue them as legitimacy exercises. Their “Temples of News” that set them apart from the hoi polloi of the rest of the television channels.

  • Robert Seidman

    completely agree that inertia accounts for how things have gone down the last 20 years. We can guess that of the 25-54 crowd watching broadcast evening news now, it's overwhelmingly weighted to people in their mid 40s to early 50s.

    One thing that is not inert is the aging process. Unless the advertisers change how they value 55+, or young people start valuing the broadcast evening news, something will probably change by 10 years out.

  • Robert Seidman

    completely agree that inertia accounts for how things have gone down the last 20 years. We can guess that of the 25-54 crowd watching broadcast evening news now, it’s overwhelmingly weighted to people in their mid 40s to early 50s.

    One thing that is not inert is the aging process. Unless the advertisers change how they value 55+, or young people start valuing the broadcast evening news, something will probably change by 10 years out.

  • Daniel C

    I don't think any of you are morons. However, I don't understand how hiring a 50 year old woman will bring younger demos, if that's indeed what CBS wants for its Nightly News. Two things have occurred regarding Couric: The Today show decided to add an additional hour and CBS decided to “soften” its news. Judging by all CBS shows including prime time, sports and news, the eye appears to have very little interest in lowering its record aging audience and is happy just having the largest one, no matter how old they are.

  • Daniel C

    I don’t think any of you are morons. However, I don’t understand how hiring a 50 year old woman will bring younger demos, if that’s indeed what CBS wants for its Nightly News. Two things have occurred regarding Couric: The Today show decided to add an additional hour and CBS decided to “soften” its news. Judging by all CBS shows including prime time, sports and news, the eye appears to have very little interest in lowering its record aging audience and is happy just having the largest one, no matter how old they are.

  • Robert Seidman

    Daniel: maybe they were trying to “split the middle”. She's younger than Rather by a good clip, but perhaps they thought not so young she'd alienate the over 60 crowd.

    I'm not sure I agree the Eye isn't trying to skew younger. Moonlight and the Big Bang theory come to mind, but I agree the card CBS plays (and well) is the most viewers period card.

  • Robert Seidman

    Daniel: maybe they were trying to “split the middle”. She’s younger than Rather by a good clip, but perhaps they thought not so young she’d alienate the over 60 crowd.

    I’m not sure I agree the Eye isn’t trying to skew younger. Moonlight and the Big Bang theory come to mind, but I agree the card CBS plays (and well) is the most viewers period card.

  • http://yahoo.com Eva G.

    Dear Robert, I'm so glad you defended your point of view respectfully, and with great insight. I think you and Bill are sooooooo smart. I'm young and never watch the news on TV, cuz I get it all online, without commercials, and usually with the ability to blog about it.

  • http://yahoo.com Eva G.

    Dear Robert, I’m so glad you defended your point of view respectfully, and with great insight. I think you and Bill are sooooooo smart. I’m young and never watch the news on TV, cuz I get it all online, without commercials, and usually with the ability to blog about it.

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