A principal reason for the decline by half of network evening news ratings is the public’s short attention span. That’s what former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw told CNN’s Howard Kurtz on his “Reliable News” program Sunday while discussing the low ratings endured by the CBS Evening News under anchor Katie Couric.
Also, the CBS News division had taken some hits. They weren’t as strong as they had been earlier. So I think it was a combination of all of those things. One of the penalties that she pays or anyone pays in this business anymore is that the attention span of the country is so short on all of these matters. [emphasis added]
Mr. Brokaw, perhaps the best anchor of the post-Cronkite generation, may be both right and wrong. Whether the brevity of the stories produced the short attention span or the short attention span produced the brevity is the sort of chicken-and-egg question philosophers and lawyers love. But rarely do those involved in network news admit to their roles in creating a public less capable of sustained, serious thought. Mr. Brokaw is a thoughtful man, and he should understand this.
The newscasts’ ratings have fallen from roughly a 15 share to a 6 or 7 share in the past 25 years, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study. The average evening news viewer is 60 years old (meaning it’s me), well outside the target demographic of 18- to 49-year-olds the advertisers crave. The audience of the evening news is literally dying, and the younger folks aren’t tuning in â€” because it was never their habit to do so.
But the lengths of stories on the nightly news do not lend themselves to full, articulate reporting. So why should anyone tune in? Is it just what they’re used to getting? (I know, I know: We can argue about the meaning of “full” and “articulate” another time.) The stories are not necessarily “dumbed down,” but they are short stories. They cannot be fully fleshed representations of reality.
Nearly half â€” 42 percent â€” of network evening news stories are 40 seconds or less. And 48 percent are between 90 seconds and 120 seconds long, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study. So the stories do not require a long attention span by the viewers. The short duration of the stories feeds the perception of short attention span. So what came first? The short story or the inattentive viewer?
The content of the stories, and their quality, may also reflect that perception of the short attention span.
That study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism â€” “The State of the News Media 2004” â€” also assessed the content of the nightly network newscasts:
Looked at another way, if you watched a commercial nightly newscast every weeknight for a month â€” some 10 hours of programming â€” you would have seen:
â€¢ Less than a minute about culture and the arts
â€¢ Less than a minute on family and parenting
â€¢ About four minutes on the environment
â€¢ Less than five minutes about transportation
â€¢ Slightly less than seven minutes about education
â€¢ About 14 minutes on healthcare
â€¢ About 16 minutes of crime
â€¢ About 22 minutes on accidents and disasters
â€¢ About 74 minutes on government matters
â€¢ About 97 minutes on foreign affairs
How does this news agenda compare to Page A-1 of America’s newspapers?
That study is nearly 4 years old, of course. Today, these times would probably reflect the recent emphases on climate change, the war on terror, the 2008 presidential horse race and the discovery that stories about missing or murdered beautiful white women make for excellent ratings. But would the content shift sufficiently to suggest viewers are truly receiving news? Or is it still, as Doc Slammy once said of CNN, “News Whizâ„¢”?
Local news isn’t an improvement, according to the PEJ study:
Yet the data also reveal that the medium is dominated by the ethos of “live, local and late-breaking” coverage, particularly of crime. Many of the stories are formulaic, reactive and, above all, short.
Here are some findings:
â€¢ Three-quarters of all stories are local.
â€¢ Roughly 70 percent of the stories are under one minute long.
â€¢ The most common topic is crime â€” by more than 2 to 1 over anything else.
â€¢ Four in ten stories are about fairly typical, everyday incidents.
â€¢ Six out of ten stories that involved controversy gave only or mostly one point of view.
Formulaic, reactive, and above all, short. That would make a remarkable epitaph for TV news, either network or local, were it not for the enormous profits each makes. It doesn’t take a genius to see that formulaic, reactive and short stories cost far less to report and produce than innovative, analytical and complete stories.
To partially blame falling ratings on the public’s short attention span â€” without acknowledging the network news programs’ complicity in either creating or fostering it â€” is a sad blemish on Mr. Brokaw’s otherwise uncommonly thoughtful Sunday appearance on CNN.