For the first time since the ultra-heavy news environment of ten years ago, the audience for the broadcast networks' weekday evening newscasts is growing. Their seemingly inexorable decline in viewing levels was interrupted once in 2001-2002, with the saturation coverage following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. This year it has happened again.    
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THERE’S LIFE IN THE OLD NEWSCASTS YET For the first time since the ultra-heavy news environment of ten years ago, the audience for the broadcast networks' weekday evening newscasts is growing. Their seemingly inexorable decline in viewing levels was interrupted once in 2001-2002, with the saturation coverage following the terrorist attacks of September 11th. This year it has happened again.

Viewership has not quite returned to the levels of two years ago, when the agenda was led by the global financial collapse, and the historic election and inauguration of Barack Obama. Nevertheless, 2010-2011 surpassed the previous season, which was dominated by the earthquake in Haiti and the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico by BP's seabed oil drilling leak.

This ratings rebound defies the secular trend. The mass medium of broadcast television should, by rights, be in permanent decline as niches proliferate. A newscast created for the 24-hour cycle should, by rights, be losing relevance in a news-on-demand world. There are valid technological, socioeconomic, demographic and world-historical explanations for the uptick, which I will mention later.

There is also this fact: viewers are being offered a broader palette of journalistic styles by the three newscasts now than at any time in the last 15 years. This year has seen both ABC World News and CBS Evening News revamp their formats. So, taken together, the three newscasts cater to a range of tastes that is wider than at any time since CBS experimented with tabloid sensation with its Dan Rather-Connie Chung combo in the early '90s while Peter Jennings at ABC's then-aptly-named World News focused on the international hotspots of Bosnia, South Africa, Palestine and Chechnya.

BEN AT ABC; SCOTT AT CBS [NOTE: to read this entire post from the beginning go here]

The starkness of the contrast in the approaches of the three newscasts cannot account for the ratings rebound seen in the entire annual season, since the changes at ABC became obvious only after the new year and those at CBS are yet more recent. Scott Pelley, formerly of 60 Minutes, took over the anchor chair from Katie Couric in June. His stamp was visible immediately but, still, it was in evidence only in the season's final quarter. At ABC, Sawyer had already been in the anchor chair for a year before her newscast was revamped. The significant changes at her newscast occurred after Ben Sherwood, Sawyer's one-time executive producer at Good Morning America, arrived as president of ABC's news division.

Nevertheless, both Sawyer's and Pelley's changes have now redrawn the competitive landscape in the nightly news timeslot. Both newscasts have made the correct judgment that offering a summary of the major breaking news developments of the previous 24 hours is an anachronism. Both have added more non-breaking feature content, which offers the added advantage of a longer half-life of relevance post-broadcast, when it is available for streaming online to an expanded audience.

That said, Sawyer and Pelley have taken diametrically opposite tacks about what type of stories warrant this extra feature coverage. They have both drawn on their roots, his in a serious weekly news magazine, hers in a news-you-can-use morning show. Pelley has focused on the major abstract foreign and domestic policy issues facing the republic; Sawyer has taken a service approach, addressing the practical daily lifestyle needs of her viewers, while offering inspirational human interest.

The upshot of these two shifts is that NBC Nightly News is now the leader in providing hard breaking news, covering developments within the 24-hour news cycle (2353 min since the beginning of the year v ABC 1730, CBS 2078). By contrast, ABC now devotes more than half of its newshole to the features-interviews-soft-news category (1906 min year-to-date v CBS 1684, NBC 1448).

THE NEW CBS EVENING NEWS Under Pelley's anchorship, CBS has turned into the leader among the three newscasts in four major categories of hard journalism (all data are for the June through September period):

1.Foreign Policy: CBS has spent much more time on foreign policy in general (136 min v ABC 87, NBC 106), in particular on the war in Afghanistan (77 min v ABC 32, CBS 38). Anchor Pelley has visited there twice, most recently to mark the tenth anniversary of the start of the war this week, and CBS, alone of the three newscasts, has a correspondent stationed permanently in Kabul: Mandy Clark.

2.The Stalling Economy: again CBS not only spent more time on economic stories in general (486 min v ABC 306, CBS 295), led by veteran business correspondent Anthony Mason, but it has also zeroed in on three specific areas of economic distress. CBS has spent most time on unemployment (70 min v ABC 43, NBC 46), on the housing crisis, both foreclosures and sagging construction and sales (56 min v ABC 8, NBC 3), and on that cluster of stories concerning poverty-hunger-homelessness (28 min v ABC 13, NBC 19).

3.Domestic Politics: with Nancy Cordes on Capitol Hill and the newly-arrived Norah O'Donnell replacing Chip Reid at the White House (both O'Donnell and Reid were once part of Tim Russert's DC Bureau at NBC), CBS led the way this summer in covering inside-the-Beltway politics (374 min v ABC 282, NBC 327), a leading role habitually taken by NBC, when Russert was alive. The summer's leading political story was the Debt Ceiling debate, which CBS covered most heavily (143 min v ABC 73, NBC 89), by far. It was certainly in its sweet spot, being both an economic and a political story. So far CBS has not made a similar effort to dominate the early stages of Campaign 2012 (66 min v ABC 77, NBC 80), where Jan Crawford is its lead correspondent.

4.Major Developments: CBS devoted almost exactly half of its newshole to the Top Thirty (833 min v 851 on all other stories) most heavily covered stories (ranked by total time devoted to each on all three newscasts combined) of the past four months. Compare that with NBC (729 min on the Top Thirty v 970 on all others) and, most astonishingly, ABC's ratio (581 min v 1053). Those 30 were topped by the Debt Ceiling (305 min) inside-the-Beltway, Hurricane Irene (178 min) along the eastern seaboard, unemployment (159 min) nationwide, and Afghanistan (147 min) and Libya (146 min) overseas.

THE NEW ABC WORLD NEWS The contrast with Sawyer's newscast is clear. Since we trace the changes there back to Sherwood's arrival as president of ABC News, the following data are for the year to date (January through September) as opposed to the four-month data on Pelley's changes.

1.New York Central: Sawyer has configured her newscast around her anchor desk. More stories were filed by correspondents with a New York dateline on ABC than on the other two newscasts combined (450 reports v CBS 221, NBC 152). She is developing a core cadre of New-York-based correspondents with no specialist beat, assigned to whatever story happens to surface on any given day, to form a GMA-style in-studio team: David Muir, Sharyn Alfonsi and Jim Avila. Along with ABC's two inside-the-Beltway regulars, Jake Tapper at the White House and Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill, those five correspondents accounted for almost one-third (30%) of all reporters' airtime on ABC: by contrast the top five most heavily used correspondents at CBS and NBC occupied 26% and 25% of reporters' airtime respectively.

2.World News No More: the corollary of focusing on New York is to downplay international coverage. On the three measures Tyndall Report uses to track foreign coverage, ABC was the laggard on each one: stories filed with a foreign dateline (408 min v CBS 601, NBC 678); stories on United States foreign policy (249 min v CBS 346, NBC 328); international stories, with no USFP involvement (697 min v CBS 879, NBC 985). ABC has been especially unenthusiastic about the events of the so-called Arab Spring: combine the coverage of Egypt, Libya and Syria together (258 min v CBS 447, NBC 459) and ABC devoted barely half as much time to those stories as its rivals.

3.Agenda Setting: one of the weaknesses of these legacy newscasts in the contemporary news environment is that they may merely re-summarize headline developments that have already been thoroughly covered by rival news media. ABC's solution has been to cut back dramatically on major news developments (1393 min on the Top Thirty stories v CBS 1808, NBC 1764), freeing Sawyer to set her own agenda. In part she relies on her morning-show celebrity-tabloid sensibility. For example, total the time spent on Oprah Winfrey's retirement, the British royal wedding, and the trials of Casey Anthony and Michael Jackson's doctor (still ongoing) and ABC (117 min v CBS 57, NBC 63) easily outstripped its rivals. In part, World News has been used to cross-promote Sawyer's own "gets": her exclusives on Jacqueline Kennedy's oral history, Donald Rumsfeld's memoir Known & Unknown and Jaycee Dugard (52 min in total v CBS 0, NBC 8) were treated as virtually unnewsworthy by the other newscasts. In part, ABC has decided to generate its own stories, to illustrate underlying trends. Most prominent has been Made in America, the Muir-&-Alfonsi series (72 min) publicizing the predominance of imports in domestic household furnishings.

4.News You Can Use: the Made in America series is an example of Sawyer's turn towards service journalism. Instead of covering the failings of the macro-economy as a policy problem, as CBS tends to under Pelley, Made in America made it personal: if we Americans, in our capacity as consumers, practiced import substitution in our purchases, the failures of the labor market would be mitigated. ABC specializes in beats on the personal rather than the societal level: Health-&-Medicine (179 min v CBS 144, NBC 100); Sex-&-Family (148 min v CBS 111, NBC 93); Food-&-Diet (79 min v CBS 42, NBC 43). The newscast is chock-full of features with strip-formatted titles to assist viewers in changing the way they live and to suggest that ABC News can be their personal agent: Richard Besser's Healthy Living addresses the healthcare system from the point of view of the patient's lifestyle; Claire Shipman's Second Acts offers anecdotes of successful retirement planning; Chris Cuomo's Bringing America Back features inspirational small businesses; Dollars & Sense on prudent personal finance; Consumer Watchdog on ripoffs and Washington Watchdog on waste-fraud-abuse.

WHAT ABOUT NBC NIGHTLY NEWS? Amid these changes, NBC's newscast, which entered the year as the ratings leader and so had less incentive to revamp itself, seems remarkably stable. NBC's specialty, not surprisingly, since the Weather Channel is a subsidiary of NBC News, is Natural Disasters (661 min year to date v CBS 513, ABC 449). NBC has devoted more time than its rivals to Japan's earthquake-tsunami, to killer tornados, and to Hurricane Irene. Do not be misled by the Hard News statistic mentioned earlier into thinking that Williams' newscast is feature-free. Rather, it concentrates almost all of its hard news reporting into the top of the newscast, before the first commercial. The remainder of the newscast is considerably softer than Pelley's on CBS. The penultimate segment is usually reporter-free, showcasing anchor Williams' wry observations on celebrity or watercooler tidbits. Then NBC routinely concludes with an inspirational human interest feature, often using its Making a Difference strip format.

By contrast, CBS' Pelley has little time for those soft closings. Astonishingly, in his first four months behind the anchor desk, while ABC has given us a stray penguin chick and a migrating whimbrel and a baby lemur, and NBC has featured baboons and blue whales and a talking dog, CBS (0 min v ABC 46, NBC 23) has not filed a single animal feature.

WILL VIEWERS NOTICE? So, viewers now have a wider array of journalistic styles on their nightly newscast menus than they have enjoyed for years. It turns out that each newscast's agenda is well-fitted to the personality of its anchor. During Bill Clinton's Presidency, when Pelley was White House correspondent, I found his straitlaced style in reporting the tawdriness of the Monica Lewinsky affair unappealingly priggish. His return to the Evening News, in these times of economic hardship at home and endless war overseas, makes him a better fit: his style now reads as a stoic seriousness. By contrast Sawyer offers emotional intensity, and Williams a sardonic reassurance.

I would like to think that the increase in the size of the audience for these three newscasts reflects a discerning response to their editorial adjustments and competitive innovations. This is, no doubt, wishful thinking on my part. As promised, there are four other plausible explanations for the increased number of eyeballs. First, this has been a heavy year for news: it is important stories that drive marginal members of the audience to the newscast rather than the newscast's journalism that attracts them. Second, the economy: belt-tightening at home means fewer restaurant dinners, more eyeballs available to turn the newscast on. Third, demographics: the huge babyboom generation is entering retirement en masse, increasing the size of the 55-70 age group, the cohort that is the prime target audience for these newscasts. Fourth, technology: the analog-to-digital switch temporarily depressed the size of the audience for broadcast television, as rabbit ears became obsolete; it may be that the decline in 2009-2010 was exaggerated and that 2010-2011 represents merely a reversion to the mean secular trend.

In the meantime, it is good to see these newscasts experimenting, adapting to the modern news ecosystem, and differentiating themselves. At last.

UPDATE: here is a splendid audio summary of the main points of this post with Brooke Gladstone of WNYC's On The Media.