Changing of the Guard

My dad e-mailed me about a week back with a piece by the always clever Jonah Goldberg, who was ridiculing the work of Les Moonves, who has moved CBS Evening News to a new, "hipper" format:

As many of you know, I like to keep my finger on the pulse of those who keep their fingers on the pulse of those who occassionally monitor what young people think. And, based upon my exhaustive research I can tell you one thing I am sure of. Les Moonves is a frick'n genius. The CBS News chief is changing the "antiquated" format of the CBS Evening News with a multi-city, multi-anchor deal (or, "dealio" as the kids today call it). He believes that young viewers don't like the "voice of God" approach of one anchor.

He is so right. Why, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I've overheard i-Pod listening hipsters and hep-cats say, "You know, Tré, it's really too bad the broadcast news programs are so obsessed with the mono-anchor paradigm. If only they would shed that antedeluvian format for something more dynamic and multi-tasking I would eschew MTV cribs and the WB fare for some hard news about the deficit and social security reform reported from different locales."

I like Goldberg, but he's dead wrong. Moonves' move may or may not pan out, but even if it fails, it is absolutely a step in the right direction for CBS. Here's why:

1. CBS's snafu this fall about Bush's National Guard record nails home pretty clearly that you aren't allowed to mess up at all when it comes to news. Someone will call you on it, and you will take a major hit, and whoever the main anchor is takes a lot of the blame for it. Why? Rather didn't write the news, he's just the talent. He sits behind the desk and reads what's on the teleprompter and in his notes. He segues in and out of commercials. He connects with his audience. That's what he's always been paid to do, and he's good at it. Why should we be mad at him if the news he reads to us happens to be utterly wrong? But we do get angry, because he was the one who said it, and we believed it, and we were fooled. Look at CNN or FoxNews. This situation could never have happened to them, because we don't connect their news with each individual nearly as much.

2. In fact, CNN and FoxNews are really what have created this situation for CBS. Both have created a new kind of news cast: two rolling text bars combined with graphics, along with the newscaster's head poking out amidst the mess. People can turn in for a few minutes, catch up on what's happening in the world, then switch it off. They can catch ESPN for their sports update. The evening news program, as it is, slowly becomes antiquated. Yet people still tune in to such broadcasts as Jon Stewart's Daily Show, so there's still a call for news shows. But they need to be updated, and CBS Evening News hasn't really been updated since Rather took the position. It's been a distant third for 20 years. Not good for "TV's Most Watched Network."

3. The iPod-wearing teenager is not their market - yet. Eventually, those damn kids with their loud music and stupid clothes will become young adults who were raised on MTV and the WB. They'll be used to flash and glitter in all their TV viewing habits. They won't watch anything else. It's just about an ideal time to be launching such a move: Gen X-ers now range from about ages 25 or 30 to 40 or 45, depending on who you ask. Funny how that sneaks up on you, huh? Gen X is still vaguelly synonymous with the youth market, but the fact is that they've all entered the workforce, 50 million strong, and they don't watch MTV anymore. They actually watch news programs. But not CBS Evening News. Why should they? Research has proved one thing absolutely clear: what worked for the Baby Boom generation will not work for Gen X. Shows aimed at Baby Boomers have no spillover into Gen X. But even if changing the format does not draw them back in, and they're already lost: the Millennial generation, 75 million strong, is just now entering entering the work force. And it's entirely possible that the first news show to embrace the idea of flashier graphics, faster cuts, and less of that "voice of God" factor will be the one that captures that audience.

I mean, it's CBS Evening News. What could they possibly have to lose?