Future of News

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(HOST) Three thousand people, mainly family and friends, paid their final respects to the late ABC news anchorman Peter Jennings on Tuesday in New York City. Commentator Barrie Dunsmore was among them.

(DUNSMORE) The Jennings memorial service was an opportunity for his family and friends to celebrate Peter’s life. It also gave us a chance to reflect on what he had meant to American broadcast news – and what it will be like without him. NBC’s Brokaw and CBS’ Rather have already retired. And by the end of the year, when ABC’s Koppel leaves his nightline program – the four men who dominated network television news for more than two decades will all have passed from the scene. Of course this represents the end of an era.

However, the nature of network news had already been changing quite dramatically – at least since the end of the cold war. As I’ve said here before, the most significant factor in that change was when news became a money maker for the networks. With news as a commodity, ratings became the measure of success – not the quality of the reporting. A major contribution of the big four during the last decade was to resist commercial pressures to dumb down the news by catering to the lowest common denominator of the audience. Jennings in particular was able to force ABC news to do important programs in prime time on major foreign stories such as the war in Bosnia. He was also able to keep tabloid stories such as the O.J. Simpson trial- not off the evening news entirely – but at least not allow such stories to dominate the broadcast.

Each network invested greatly in developing their anchors- and in recent times paid them millions of dollars annually making them very powerful men. But it is inconceivable that the ultimate successors of Peter, Ted, Tom and Dan will be given anything like the same level of power or money. Actually, the network parent companies, Disney, G.E. and Viacom are very likely to pull the plug on the evening newscasts in the not too distant future. They cost too much to produce and their audiences are steadily shrinking – not to mention getting much older and thus less desirable to advertisers.

That doesn’t mean the end of network television news. It will survive – in some still-to-be-determined format. But it is a fact that the golden age of television news was over more than a decade ago. It ended, as do all such ages, when the unique circumstances that created it – were fundamentally changed.

The new technologies – cable, satellites, the internet will provide future generations with a different kind of news product – suitable to an ever changing universe. This is a perfectly natural progression.

However as a geezer from the golden age – I do feel a bit like calligrapher monks who produced hand written bibles must have felt – when Gutenburg’s new invention came along. The moveable type printing press was of course, one of history’s most liberating inventions. I don’t happen to think internet blogging is in quite the same category – but we shall see.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.

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