Thursday, May 6, 2010

CBS and CNN, this time?

Like two people contemplating a relationship, one that neither is entirely sure they want to get into, CBS News and CNN are making partnership noises — again.

“We're open to a deal, whether it's with CBS or any other news network,” said Jeff Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, in a Wednesday conference call with analysts. "It's no secret we've been talking to other news networks in the past. There's a lot of financial strength at CNN that puts us in a good position to offer a solution to the financial problems of network news organizations.”

This discussion of a hookup has happened before, each partner agonizing privately about how far to go. But this time, there’s more at stake.

With the economy of the news business undergoing riotous changes, and the economies of scale a more compelling factor in negotiations now, the stage may be set for a real union of two potent newsgathering forces. It may be a marriage of inconvenience, but it’s likely to be a marriage just the same.

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Gabriel Sherman of New York Magazine explained what’s happening in The Daily Intel:

“The talks revolve around how the two news divisions can combine operations in a bid to cut costs and expand audiences on both sides. While such conversations have occurred over the last decade, the current news-business climate — plummeting CNN ratings, ever-shrinking evening-news audiences, major layoffs at ABC — make a deal more logical than ever before. The talks are still fluid, which means that executives would speak only on condition of anonymity, but CNN and CBS began negotiations some time ago.”

It’s déjà vu all over again. We went to the same rodeo back in early 2008. That’s when (for the second time in ten years) reports surfaced of CBS and CNN refloating an idea to create a newsgathering joint venture. That idea had first been proposed sometime around 1998, and was detailed in a cover story for the late, and underappreciated, Brill’s Content magazine.

The 2008 version of the plan ventured the notion of taking CBS news stories filed from its Baghdad bureau and piggybacking them on CNN cable feeds.

The financial rationale was a good one; it would have both saved CBS about $7 million a year and done something to advance the CBS brand into the lucrative realm of cable.

The talks fell through in ‘08, much like they went south back in ’98. But this time the stakes are higher — especially for CBS, which faces enormous challenges without a presence in the growing cable space (and whose news division reliably trails NBC and ABC in the ratings).

NBC is well-positioned in the cablescape; with MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo and Telemundo among its cable properties, NBC has become the broadcast model to follow: a broadcast network with deep reach into cable via properties NBC can call on at any time — to achieve the same cross-pollination of newsgathering resources CBS is now contemplating with CNN.

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Sooner or later, whether the CBS/CNN talks prove fruitful or not, the Tiffany Network will need to step up to the plate. Since 2008, and sure as hell since 1998, the playing field has changed dramatically. Multichannel News made that plain in January:

“Cable’s household share has increased every year since 2000 — the last time broadcast-network programming was watched in a majority of households. Back then, before cable networks began developing quality original scripted series and highly-rated reality programming fare, the four broadcast networks averaged a 46.8 household share compared to cable’s 41.2.

In 2009, cable’s 60.6 share was up 2% compared to 2008’s 59.2, while broadcasters’ 32.1 share was down 2% from last year’s 32.7.”

And cable properties are consistently rolling out more original programming too. Have been for years. With edgy, risky shows like “Burn Notice,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Rescue Me” and others besides, cable has a creative edge over much of what the broadcast nets roll out every year.

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James Poniewozik, blogging at Time.com, understood what was in the wind in 2008: “Katie was brought in on the premise that she and her star power — plus a revamping of the newscast format — could bring in new viewers to the evening news … She cannot. God cannot. It is a losing proposition. … Couric's newscast has been an expensive final refutation of the desperate belief that it is possible to reverse the slow, inexorable decline of network news.

“Network newscasts are a holding effort. They are a rearguard action. They are prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe. Namely: fewer Americans have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour TV newscast at 6:30 in the evening …”

CBS and CNN have been gravitating toward some kind of relationship for years; CNN’s Anderson Cooper has done periodic double duty as one of CBS’s “60 Minutes” crew since 2006; Christiane Amanpour filed some dispatches for CBS before she bolted from CNN recently to take on a new gig at ABC (an interesting move: from cable to broadcast!).

Television in the 21st century is a landscape of relentless changes. CNN, and CBS especially, are two examples of networks stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. Here’s hoping, maybe even betting, that this time they’ll both show up at the altar for the shotgun nuptials they’ve managed to avoid, up to now.

Image credits: CNN logo: © 2010 CNN. CBS logo: © 2010 CBS Inc. Viewer share chart: TV by the Numbers. Couric: © 2010 CBS. Anderson Cooper: CNN.

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