By Christopher B. Daly
I don’t write much about network television news, because I never worked in that part of the news business. But a story in today’s Times about the challenges piling up at NBC News prompt some thoughts, from the point of view of a consumer.
First, some context: NBC was the original pioneer of news on television, thanks to its mid-20th Century chief executive, David Sarnoff. A Russian immigrant, Sarnoff had the kind of rise in broadcasting that Pulitzer had had in newspapers. He made NBC Radio so powerful in the 1930s that the government pressured it to divide in half in the 1940s. Going forward, Sarnoff pushed hard for NBC to add television to its remaining radio division. In both media, NBC showcased news as both a loss leader and as a way to impress the FCC with its fulfillment of the obligation to broadcast “in the public interest.”
Flash forward: NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is the top-rated evening news show on TV (far ahead of anything on cable). Meet the Press with David Gregory is the top serious Sunday morning interview show. The Today Show is the top “news” show in the morning. But the daily programs, both morning and evening, are hearing footsteps. (This is not to mention Rock Center with Brian Williams, which appears to be a vanity program destined for cancellation soon.)
IMHO, the problems NBC is having in the morning and the evening have different sources. In the evening, the problem appears to be Brian Williams. With each passing year in the anchor chair (the one once shared by Huntley and Brinkley), he becomes more pompous, ponderous, and insufferable. He cannot help himself from making unctuous comments on the news, or applauding his correspondents for merely workmanlike stories. His own segments, though rare, are particularly revolting — softball time-shares with celebs or heads of state, wounded vets, found dogs, etc. The Nightly News has a pretty impressive team of correspondents and camera-persons. Williams should shut up and let them do their jobs.
In the morning, the Today Show has figured out a way to generate $200 million a year in profit, which goes directly to the bottom line of NBCUniversal, which means it goes 51% to Comcast and 49% to GE. The show has come a long way from its debut in 1952, when it was cooked up by NBC exec Pat Weaver (father of Sigourney). The original host was Dave Garroway, who shared the responsibilities with a pet chimp named J. Fred Muggs.
From what I observe by watching the program a lot, the formula seems to be this: forget about men, who apparently do not watch television in the morning; instead, appeal to women with a daily diet of the stuff that NBC presumes is of interest to women: domestic abuse nightmares, celebrity marriage stories, missing children, missing blonde women, the British royals, recipes, fashion, and all the rest. (All of which has made me a convert to Morning Joe on another NBC channel, MSNBC.)
If the Today Show wants to innovate and expand, here’s a thought: go beyond women.
And keep Ann Curry. She’s adorable.