Monday, April 7, 2008

NBC Nightly News: Don't Hate the Playa, Hate the Game

I've been watching the NBC Nightly News several times a week for the last few months, and while the broadcast is still underwritten by drug ads--despite the fact that the news regularly debunks health myths and reports on drug errors--there has been a shift in the show’s style. For all of the discussion and criticism surrounding how the evening news is dying, how Katie Couric was brought in to lighten up the news, it turns out that Brian Williams, the perennial ratings winner, has led the way. Howard Kurtz points this out today in his weekly Media Notes column:

The "CBS Evening News" is far more traditional now than when Couric made her much-hyped debut in the fall of 2006, serving up new features and interviews with the likes of Michael J. Fox that ran as long as nine minutes. In fact, the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that last year Couric spent the least amount of time on her signature interviews with outside guests (178 minutes), compared with NBC's Brian Williams (371 minutes) and ABC's Charlie Gibson (308 minutes).

(Sidenote: The Project for Excellence in Journalism is certainly getting a lot of press. It seems it’s quoted in literally every New York Times Business article that runs on Mondays, the day when the paper covers the media industry.)

Brian’s total is much higher than his counterparts, and this is pretty evident for anyone who’s watched the Nightly News recently.

While it's still mostly Brian sitting at a desk, a square graphic to the right of his head, he occasionally swivels his chair to ask a few questions of a guest, usually a reporter or analyst affiliated with MSNBC to give some expert information. For the election, it's usually the giddy Tim Russert, who just can't hold back his excitement no matter who he's talking about. He bops along, waving his hands, grinning from ear to ear--all for a total of ten seconds of airtime. It's endearing.

The Nightly News team recently got a new studio, and to show transparency, whenever Brian is filmed from an angle we can see the woman in the background on the phone, empty desks surrounding her. Clearly she's too busy to notice or care that millions of people are annoyed by her presence. It's cool to get a view of the studio, to see how they work, but my parents, and I suspect similar viewers (since I'm probably one of the youngest out there watching, if ratings are to be believed), find it distracting.

Brian Williams has also begun to editorialize a little bit. Once in a while he'll make a comment about a story. For example, in today's broadcast he was opening a segment on airline travel satisfaction surveys, but he noted they were "more like dissatisfaction". (He had a better one last week, but I couldn't find the clip). He wryly notes that the broadcast allows advertising for the very drugs that are now under investigation for not living up to their claims (Vytorin and Zetica), as well as the fact that every week new health studies break that can justify someone's opinion. (Or as I put it, common sense. Only athletes in training drink 8 glasses of water a day). This is definitely new-school, as is his lighthearted touch. They also now use Google maps, swooping into tiny hamlets from local big cities. It’s pretty cool to see this on a television screen. Today he also cribbed from Bill O'Reilly by putting up viewer email in the graphic corner criticizing Friday's show where John McCain's interview was drowned out by Martin Luther King speeches in Memphis. He even aired complaints that used the clip as an example of liberal media bias. While the tone of the piece suggested that Brian was going to apologize for the gaffe (he did, just in a roundabout way), he didn't re-air the interview, as I expected. Now I realize it's because of time constraints, not the broadcast but of McCain's schedule. Hopefully they'll make it up to him.

The biggest thing that sets the Nightly News apart is the way the program is able to rely upon other NBC content, from MSNBC and CNBC. Analysts from those networks regularly appear, and an MSNBC logo--not an NBC one--is found in the lower lefthand corner rather than the traditional opposite end. As such, the newscast also promotes segments on other NBC property. It's definitely new media convergence--your grandparents' evening news broadcast wouldn't dare go so far as to comment on itself or promote a product. It taints the news! But honestly, now we're used to it. Why wouldn't NBC use its other properties to bolster up the news? The Daily Nightly website (the newscast's blog) is an extension of the property, and even without watching the regular broadcast one can get a sense not just of the news but the environment surrounding the news, and gives viewers an opportunity to talk to Brian and the staff. It's a perfect example of how an "old" media balances its brand while leveraging a "new" media counterpart that augments its content.

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