Not Desperate Enough: CBS News Turns to Interns for Show Ideas

Just how desperate is CBS brass to extricate their “Evening News” program from its perpetual place in the cellar of TV ratings? Apparently not desperate enough, though they are getting closer.

In Wednesday’s New York Observer, we learn that Andrew Heyward, the CBS News president responsible for nearly ten years of failure, has turned to his interns for ideas on how to “revamp” the “Evening News.”

The panel was the culmination of a summer-long project that divided CBS News’ nearly 100 college-age interns into small groups to come up with strategies to attract younger viewers to the network’s third-ranking evening newscast.

“Basically the assignment was to come up with a presentation and concept for how you would revamp the evening news, to captivate a younger demographic,” said one intern who participated in the program. “They are not getting the audience that they want.” [...]

Interns said they were encouraged to brainstorm freely, suggesting changes to the show’s anchor lineup, its news content, set design, marketing techniques and any other aspect of the newscast. One ground rule: The 6:30 time slot had to stay the same.

It's certainly true that CBS isn't getting the audience it needs. But turning to inexperienced interns with no corporate standing to say what they think isn't going to be the best source of advice, especially since for most people under 30, early evening news will always be irrelevant.

Instead, CBS should be turning to the people who do watch news and ask their opinion. The phenomenal growth of cable's Fox News Channel proves irrefutably that there is a tremendous television audience out there that wasn't being served by the existing media structure.

That same "audience gap" exists at the broadcast level. That it hasn't been filled by a savvy network news president utterly disproves one of the shibboleths of liberal media criticism: that corporate ownership of the media makes it inherently conservative, at least when it comes to economics.

The stats have never backed up that argument; the lack of a FNC approach in broadcast news destroys it. That CBS in its most desperate moment in decades is turning to interns rather than focus groups of middle-aged moderates/conservatives (or hiring away a bunch of FNC execs) further decimates it.

Contrary to conventional belief, the fact that big companies own and operate the broadcast news networks actually enables them to be more liberal because the bureaucratic and fiscal layers insulate the news divisions from market pressures. For a while, this had a certain positive effect in that it warded off the trivialization of news that is becoming increasingly common. Unfortunately, it didn't last long. The success of the newsmagazine saw to that.

The insulation still continues on political matters, however, because no other network president has been smart enough to start promoting non-liberals to high-level news positions, thereby opening up that facet of the news market.

"Of course, liberal bias isn't the only problem plaguing the networks news. Later in the story, an intern remarks that he/she didn't think the CBS execs were even listening:

Podcasting was a big deal to them […] That's because podcasting just came out on ABC and NBC… That's just a tiny little thing to us. That sort of showed us that they would rather hear what they were already thinking."

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013