The Future Face Of Network News

ABC News chief David Westin, above left, anoints Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas as co-anchors of
ABC News chief David Westin, above left, anoints Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas as co-anchors of "World News Tonight." CBS is courting Katie Couric, left (with Matt Lauer). (By Kathy Willens -- Associated Press)
By Tina Brown
Thursday, December 8, 2005

Joe Gillis (William Holden): You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

-- "Sunset Boulevard," 1950

There's nothing inherently wrong with ABC anointing Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as the new anchor-couple of "World News Tonight." It's just another Norma Desmond moment. This time, it's the networks that got small.

The two of them look as if they were spawned in the same electronic petri dish. Perhaps somewhere in Korea there is a lab where they farm raise these made-for-TV faces. (Or maybe excessively craggy-faced correspondents can go to Paris to have a new one grafted on from a brain-dead French game-show host.) David Westin, the ABC News chief, is smart to avoid betting the store on a solo anchor monster. It's the King Kong theory of success. If you don't overspend on one big star, there's more money for the juicy special effects.

Anyhow, Vargas is hot, especially when artfully filmed from the side in her jeans on hurricane gigs. She has market-tested appeal. "I'm a woman, I'm a working mother, I'm a minority" was her positioning statement. As Emily Rooney, a former ABC executive producer, put it to The Post's Howard Kurtz, "She's not the classic prima donna. I don't think anybody will resent her."

No one could resent Bob Woodruff either. He's as clean-cut and wrinkle-free as a Pixar animation. Soon, perhaps, the networks will find a way to do without correspondents altogether and digitally insert their anchors into mountainous terrains or howling hurricanes. Now that anchors have to produce for so many "delivery platforms" at once, wouldn't that be less expensive and physically demanding than hurtling them to far-off places for fleeting stand-ups? It would certainly cut the cost of the indefatigable Matt Lauer's seasonal "Journey to Ernie"-like "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" stunt. Last month, it required him to pop up smiling in Easter Island, the Panama Canal, Innsbruck, Shanghai and Dubrovnik in the space of five days, just for a bit of sweeps-week cuteness.

It's hard to get wound up, either, about the possible Katie Couric career move to CBS from "Today." The stakes (except for Katie's rumored $20 million payday) are so small. It's all about whether Ms. Couric can stanch the "CBS Evening News" audience hemorrhage while Viacom's Co-President Les Moonves simultaneously undermines NBC's morning cash cow and adds to his rival Jeff Zucker's daily diet of despair. (Moonves's favorite occupation.) It's been pleasing, however, to see Couric's image rehab. She's used her protracted negotiation dance with the opposition to exact just revenge for a season of bad diva press leaked from disloyal NBC colleagues.

Tom Brokaw looks more of a genius every day for the timing of his exit from NBC and for handpicking news machine Brian Williams as his successor. It was only a year ago, and it already feels like the Cretaceous era. Peter Jennings was still alive. Dan Rather was having his King Lear moment. Anderson Cooper was still a promising albino-haired gimmick who hadn't started to emote yet. It was fashionable to make fun of Rather for overdoing the trench coat "I'm just a reporter" routine, but you did feel his experience was experience rather than his experience was television.

Even in the past turbulent five years, alpha anchors still had their clout, but most of it was left over from the days when they had enormous audiences. They were the godlike frontmen of Olympian organizations. Gravitas-building structures of authority stood behind them -- all those globe-spanning bureaus and authoritative correspondents and deep pockets.

In the hectic pace of news there was also, compared with now, time. When the broadcast was done, they could call a source, check out a story, read something that hadn't just been ripped out and handed to them. Today, the broadcast is never done. It's a nightmare perpetual Truman Show. When they're not webcasting or cable-guesting or promoting or stunting or blogging they're what? Sleeping, I guess. Screaming. Their reality is so thin they're like the window-wraiths in Adam Gopnik's new kids' book "The King in the Window." If Katie leaves NBC, her place will probably be filled by weekend window-wraith Campbell Brown. She is bright and easygoing and unthreatening, with a face you can't pin down.

Cable news, not the broadcast network evening news, is now the basic electronic news utility. The nightly news shows still attract much bigger numbers -- 10 times as much, in their time slots, as even the biggest cable shows -- but what's scary is the way they continue to decline. And the anchors who command real loyalty and enthusiasm are no longer the stentorian network newsreaders but the excitable cable table pounders -- the Matthewses, the Nancy Graces, the O'Reillys and the Hannitys.

The unflagging Brian Williams, we are told, is always fighting for more time for hard journalism -- but that riff is getting old hat now, as sepia-toned as "Good Night, and Good Luck." A morning-show producer I know spoke with a straight face of the heroic struggle she'd waged (and lost) to get a Tony Blair interview last year up from two minutes and thirty seconds to a comprehensive four minutes. (That kind of length is reserved for Brad and Angelina.) The New York Observer pointed out recently that according to Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who tracks network news, ABC, CBS and NBC combined have averaged 166 minutes a month on Iraq this year -- which works out per network to roughly 55 minutes a month or less than 120 seconds a day. Two-minute managers have given us the two-minute war.

That's why all the network TV journalists I talk to have moved from defeatism to a sort of frantic, hopeful alertness. It's final: The Internet rules. Platform snobbery is over. Cable news 24/7 trumps scheduled network news, and TiVo trumps both. Stubborn news junkies at the networks are like greyhounds scenting the winds of change, straining to be let off the leash in whatever new media format they can. They really don't care anymore if it's network, cable, webcast or iPod, for heaven's sake, as long as someone is willing to invest in them doing something in depth. As one well-known CBS News figure said to me this week: "We are never going to get the mass audiences anymore. Ever. We just want to get on and do real journalism in whatever form we can and hope someone somewhere figures out how to pay for it. Soon."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company