As the leadership of the network news mixes, doubts about the future loom


Two of the biggest players in the news broadcast found themselves facing tough transitions last week. Both ABC News and CBS News announced new leaders, and the executive producer of ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​abruptly left the network.

The shaking, a source of confusion and anxiety for employees of both networks, has different causes and different levels of palace intrigue. But they betray a broader trend: In the age of streaming and social media, when the audience for broadcast news is in sharp decline and companies are undergoing a difficult transition to digital, the entire industry faces an unstable future.

ABC News, which competes with NBC News for broadcast primacy, hired a second-in-command on the distant third-place network, CBS News, which in turn announced a new co-leadership structure because, three sources at that network said. , his current boss didn’t want the job anymore.

Above all this confusion looms a question: What exactly are these new leaders inheriting?

“Fifteen years ago in television journalism, the network president or even the executive producer was the highest calling you could imagine,” said a longtime television news executive. “The game we’ve been playing is over.”

NBC News spoke with more than a dozen current and former news executives, executive producers, and other high-level experts who detailed similar concerns about the state of major news broadcasting operations, particularly the future of lucrative morning shows and the difficult transition to transmission. .

Representatives for NBC News, ABC News and CBS News declined to comment.

Financially, the news broadcast is in an existential dilemma. Morning shows, the profit centers of every news division of the network, are losing hundreds of thousands of viewers each year. Audiences among 25- to 54-year-olds, the demographic that advertisers covet, is about half what it was a decade ago, according to data from Nielsen, the media-tracking company.

“There is no NBC News without ‘TODAY’,” said a veteran television news executive. “There is no ABC News without ‘GMA'”.

News networks have survived this decline by charging advertisers more money to reach fewer viewers, a standard strategy on television and a lifeline for media companies as they build their broadcast networks. But at some point, several television executives acknowledged, large advertisers are likely to decide that it is not worth paying higher and higher costs to reach fewer and fewer viewers.

This presents a difficult challenge for news divisions. While the audience for an entertainment show like NBC’s “This Is Us” or CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” may be just as large on its streaming services, some media executives questioned whether there would be a similar interest in streaming. of morning programs or evening news. . NBC News has sought to extend “TODAY” to broadcast with its 24-hour “TODAY All Day,” and the CBS broadcast channel CBSN also features content from “CBS This Morning.” Episodes of “Good Morning America” ​​are available on Hulu.

But even if brands like “TODAY” and “GMA” start producing videos that people can watch on demand or attract some viewers to streaming services, it’s not clear that the ad dollars will follow.

The decline of a morning show is a problem for an entire news division, because morning shows account for most of the revenue generated by broadcast news shows. An internal sales presentation prepared for NBCUniversal News Group President Cesar Conde last year and viewed by NBC News indicates that the “TODAY” show generated $ 408 million in advertising revenue in 2019, compared to “Nightly News.” with $ 146 million and “Meet the Press.” with $ 26 million, according to the document. ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​generates between $ 350 million and $ 375 million in advertising revenue per year and accounts for the majority of the network’s news broadcast revenue, ABC sources said.

NBC News may have a stronger foundation than its competitors because it is part of an NBCUniversal News Group that also includes MSNBC and CNBC cable assets. (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.) An NBC News spokesperson declined to comment on the sales presentation.

The question now for the streaming news divisions is how to transition to digital and regain an audience that is already losing on television, and by no means is all newsgroups guaranteed to survive. A prominent media executive who is not aligned with either network questioned whether CBS, a distant third in the morning and in the evening, was already too far away.

The job of running a news broadcast division has also gotten more complicated and perhaps less fun. (Susan Zirinsky, the outgoing head of CBS News, disliked the corporate bureaucracy that came with the job.) Previous news presidents who were given the mandate to win ratings and beat the competition at all costs would be in uncharted territory with the new emphasis. This has been put into the promotion of a positive and healthy work culture.

Disney put a special emphasis on this when looking for the next ABC News frontman. NBC News obtained a seven-page document from talent recruiters sent to candidates for the position that emphasized three times the importance of fostering an open and inclusive workplace. Less emphasis was placed on keeping ABC News competitive.

“Building culture on broadcast television, which is under constant siege, with declining ratings and relevancy, is a thankless task,” said a veteran media executive. “In all the oral histories of the Titanic, no one asked, ‘What was the culture like on the third and fourth decks?'”

Culture aside, the first assignment for new ABC News president Kimberly Godwin will be crucial to the network’s success. The day after Disney announced its hiring, it announced that Michael Corn, the executive producer of “Good Morning America” ​​for seven years, was no longer on the network. The reasons for his departure are unknown. Corn did not respond to a request for comment.

The restructuring leaves Godwin in charge of the most momentous decision a broadcast leader can make: how to rejuvenate a morning show, at a time when the future of the business is in doubt.

CORRECTION (Apr 20, 2021, 3:28 pm ET): A caption in an earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of a “GMA” host. It is George Stephanopoulos, not Stephanopolos.

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