The Old News

Once upon a time, network news programs placed important issues of the day under the microscopes of Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Harry Reasoner. They didn't have matinee idol looks, but Americans trusted them. Now the network news rosters boast a few head-turners like Thomas Roberts (a gay, Clark Kent manqué) and the handsome David Muir, whose nose seems lifted from a Picasso portrait. Clearly someone sat down and said, "we need to sex things up a bit." But there is a problem. Two-thirds of network news viewers are over age 55, and with dwindling viewership, there is a revenue problem. Geezers don't buy things.

This week I analyzed how this translates into ad placement during the 30-minute ABC, NBC, and CBS news broadcasts. I simply counted the ads that aired during the three nightly broadcasts and broke them down by category. An astounding 46% of all ads were for medications or nutrition; 10% of the ads promoted other network shows; and 10% were ads for the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes drawing which takes place on June 30. Pet food and insurance companies each sponsored 8% of the ads; and financial management firms, cell phone companies, and home improvement stores clocked-in with 4% each of total advertising. This is how geezers roll: we take lots of pills, love our pets, obsess over our finances, and work on our homes. Not even a Viagra ad can make that sexy.

These days the nightly news programs each garner 8-10 million viewers a night in a nation of 325 million people. David Muir at ABC currently has a slight ratings edge over his competitors. But I prefer Lester Holt at NBC (now that lyin' Brian Williams is playing at the kids' table at MSNBC). But I see the day coming when I'll no longer bother with network news. As it is, I only watch it on my DVR, fast-forwarding through commercials and those sappy feel-good stories all three networks tag onto the end their broadcasts. You know, the ones where a one-legged Army veteran wins an ice-skating competition or a puppy is pulled from a well. These things happen, but I don't think they're news.

As for the more substantive content of these broadcasts, more and more time is being given to weather: fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Generally speaking, I don't think these things are news either, unless they happen in my back yard. Somewhere between the saccharine and the sensational, a few actual news stories creep through, usually dispatched in less than 5 minutes. Given the state of the world these days, maybe that's all viewers can take. America's addiction to armed conflict continues, while 59% of our national budget goes to help the military fight wars they don't win. The Kardashians are considered celebrities. And an orange buffoon may be our next president. I hate the fact that I'm beginning to sound like that old codger, Andy Rooney, but I think you get my point.

Of course, I could skip all those ads and switch to The PBS News Hour where Gwen Ifill does a good job of covering important stories in depth. But that show is an hour long. As Mae West once said, "Too much of a good thing can be wonderful." But I'm no longer sure the evening news is that much of a good thing.

Cable networks showcase the also-rans in their nightly news broadcasts. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow makes great points and susses out relevant facts like a terrier with a bone. But I can't watch her. Someone needs to tell her to stop talking everything to death. A half-hour of Maddow would be more than enough. Then there is the top cable non-news outlet, Fox. Their current star, Megyn Kelly, seems to have emerged fully formed from the Hitchcock catalog of iceberg blonds. But the fact that she's riding Donald Trump's coattails to media stardom makes me want to take a bath.

Maybe all those twenty somethings who never tune-in the nightly news are onto something. When you get right down to it, these broadcasts aren't working all that well for me either. I get most of my information from the same online outlets that they use. But for at least a little bit longer, I will still pour myself a nightly martini and settle down in front of the boob tube like I did 50 years ago with Walter Cronkite. It is, in some ways, like sitting in a rocking chair, on a screened-in porch, overlooking a river. It is comfortable, familiar. For a few moments, as the waters of the world flow by, I recall how things used to be and how much it has all changed.