I occasionally watch the CBS Evening News on Sky, just to remind myself how lucky I am to have access to the BBC and Channel 4. Apparently Katie Couric hasn’t been doing all that well since taking up the Anchor chair last autumn and the CBS programme still ranks third behind NBC and ABC’s offerings. For myself, I’d be less worried about clawing back to second or even first place than I would be about the overall trend in Network News in the US market:
The long term Nielsen data on this really is quite startling (the combined network viewership in red and the cable channels in green). Could it be that there is more than just correlation between producing contentless, contextless, uninforming, unchallenging swill every evening and the humungous drop off in viewers? Could there, just maybe, be a (gasp!) causative link?

If I were a shareholder in any of the major networks, seeing a 50% drop-off in viewers while the population grew by over 30% in the same period, I’d be looking for blood!

As for Katie, something did occur to me as I watched last night. She handed over to the various correspondents (Why are they called ‘correspondents?’ What’s wrong with ‘reporters?’); they each did their piece to camera and then she engaged each of them in a scripted conversation – as though they had forgotten to mention something in their report. What struck me was that Katie asked each of them more questions. I suspect that too many of Katie’s sentences end with question marks – Walter Cronkite told you the news, he didn’t direct questions to his lesser reporters. Either that, or Katie is indelibly associated with lightweight fluff from her years on daytime television.

It seems to me that the airwaves and the blogosphere are filled with discussions of ratings and minuscule shifts in audiences from week to week. The graph above tells me that people aren’t having the right conversation. If 53m people out of a total population of 226m in 1980 watched an evening news programme, then the 300m population today should be generating a nightly audience in the order of 70m. The actual number is barely 30m. Why are 40 million people running around the United States with their fingers in their ears shouting, “La la la la, I’m not listening, I’m not listening!”? Perhaps they’re not that entranced by stories of tapdancing dogs from Tallahassee?