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ROBB AUSTIN'S TURN

Network News Problem is Center-Right

April 9, 2010

Major network news executives are constantly pondering their plight these days in the face of an ever decreasing audience share, and wondering aloud what they can do to reverse the trend.

It is true that our society has changed, and that lifestyles do prevent viewers from tuning in at the prescribed times, and this is one reason cable and satellite television, which offers 24/7 news, is an appealing and convenient alternative.

For years, of course, the networks (ABC, CBS, & NBC) had little or no competition, and most of the nation’s households tuned in to one of those three outlets to get their news. The networks were also incredibly important in shaping views, too.

Much of what the networks reported ultimately became part of our culture. We all remember that Walter Cronkite, famed anchor for CBS, was once voted the most trusted man in America. Few, if any, challenged the accuracy or the motives behind the news of ABC, NBC, or CBS.

Things started to change with the advent of technology and the popularity of the 24-hour news cycle. The country as a whole has always been defined as center-right, and this remains true today.  Yet the networks continue to report the news with a leftist slant, ignoring the fact that most of their viewers are center-right in philosophy.

The networks have also been slow to recognize that viewers are comfortable with cable stations, and don’t buy into the theory that only the mainstream networks get it right when it comes to delivering the news.

Thus, viewers are leaving the networks in droves, and the biggest beneficiary seems to be Fox News, a center-right network. Liberal critics say Fox is a ‘conservative’ outlet – and is a mouth piece for the Republican Party.

The truth is Fox is very good at presenting the news from the middle. This often means the cable news channel will give equal measure to conservative and liberal points of view, something NBC, CBS, and ABC simply refuses to do.

The ‘big three’ networks convey a message to viewers that any opinion outside the mainstream (as defined by them) is not worthy of being reported.  The most recent example is the tepid reports the three major networks filed on the national tea party movement – and their attempt to marginalize the movement’s organization and rallies.

Instead of embracing the Fox business model, which gives voice to both liberal and conservative opinions, ABC, NBC, and CBS have chosen to ‘do battle’ with Fox. They are joined by Democrat members of Congress, and the White House, who also routinely criticize and denounce Fox.

The result is that Fox continues to flourish, and since many Democrats unofficially ‘boycott” Fox News (by refusing to appear), conservatives often have a clear field from which to articulate their positions.

CBS anchor Katie Couric has been a big loser in this process. She is viewed by many center-right viewers as being impartial and biased, and they simply won’t watch her broadcast. She has remained in last place in the ‘big three’ network ratings race her entire news anchor career, and has virtually no chance of gaining ground on either ABC or NBC.

It’s fun to note,  the one week she broke through from last place, was during the 2008 presidential campaign, when she interviewed Republican Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.  Now, who do you suppose tuned in those nights to watch, yes, of course, center-right viewers who like Ms. Palin.

It’s not too late for the major networks to start appealing to a larger segment of the country – mainly those on the center-right. Should they choose to do so – they will find their viewership in a growth pattern for the first time in many years.

The good news for Fox, however, is this may be too difficult a solution for the networks to embrace.