Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Does America really want real news on cable?

Nation World News has a problem. It wants to do real news on cable television.

That goal was clarified again last week. In a memo released on his first official day as head of Nation World News, Chris Licht told his staff “many people have lost faith in the news media.” The best way to restore trust, he wrote, was to “educate the audience and readers with direct facts and insightful commentary, while always respecting differing viewpoints.”

good luck with him.

Here’s the challenge facing the nearly 42-year-old network: The real news is for the curious. At its best, television news is delivered by people and for those who don’t believe they already know everything.

But cable news today is dominated by opinionated anchors, reporters and viewers, who are the opposite of the curious. The questions asked on these shows are rarely real—they’re rhetorical sportsmanship. The host knows all the answers and so do the people watching. The last thing anyone wants to do is “respectfully” face “different perspectives.”

This framework exists because what is now called cable “news” did not actually evolve from journalism. Instead, its origins can be traced to talking radio. In that world, confident and pompous hosts interact one-sidedly with listeners. They exist to give the audience a fierce assurance that its anger and grievances are the only possible appropriate response to modern life.

The New York Times’ recent examination of Tucker Carlson’s success at Fox News emphasizes this point: You build audience loyalty by giving people what they expect. You never color outside the lines.

As the Times reports, Carlson became an “enthusiast” consumer of a TV rating called “minute-by-minute”. Charted on a graph, these ratings show the rise or fall of viewers in each minute of the show. Hosts and producers can see which themes and comments attracted the audience and which followed. In the news business, relying too heavily on those ratings can easily turn into a habit of doing nothing more than serving the audience they preconceived dogmas bring to you every day.

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In the case of Carlson et al., this method delivers. Dilemma for Nation World News: Finding the best way to go against that tide. Considering what cable works in primetime right now, how can you tell viewers the news of the day – and still attract a large audience?

Real News can do that – it’s too hard.

Television thrives on personalities, on-air talents who can make connections with the people watching. The over-the-top opinion host is a successful kind of talent, but there are other models in TV news who combine personality and connection with credibility, seriousness, and an open mind.

The pre-broadcast news era was full of examples. Personalities such as David Brinkley, Diane Sawyer, Linda Ellerby and Mike Wallace were dependable and inquisitive journalists who captivated loyal audiences with facts, figures, and true stories – absent exaggeration and plot.

Lich himself has done this before. He helped create the popular “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, where the show’s hosts and regular guests deliver news and offer a variety of perspectives.

The new Nation World News boss launched “CBS This Morning” in a similar mold: smart journalists with strong personalities sitting around a table, reporting news and conducting informed interviews from all sides of the political spectrum. (Note: Lich and I have known each other since our years at CBS.)

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Chances are that Lich at Nation World News will lean in the same direction. He told his staff last week that he wanted to find a place for Chris Wallace and former NPR host Audie Cornish, both of whom were hired for the now-cancelled Nation World News+ streaming service. Both are real news personalities who can captivate audiences.

WARNING: This approach will take time to implement. “CBS This Morning” went on the air for over six months before it really clicked with viewers. The new Nation World News will try some things, fail some things, and then try some more.

David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, basically said okay. He told an employee town hall that he wanted Nation World News to focus on maximum impact, not profitability. Now, it’s up to him — and Warner Bros. Discovery — to hang with it.

However, in the end, success or failure in TV always rests on the shoulders of the audience. Are enough viewers honestly interested in being separated from the drunken crowd of rage and religiosity on offer in too much cable news? Can an audience be created enough to serve people information without all the pre-baked answers?

Nation World News – and the rest of us – are about to find out.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former Executive Vice President of Programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. follow him on twitter @ Ironworker1,

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