While they have steadily shed viewers, to a cumulative 22 million in 2009, from about 50 million in 1980, the newscasts still amass an audience that dwarfs any show on a cable news channel. In the last five years, the more lucrative network morning shows have also shown declines, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said. “What’s occurring in broadcast news is not some sudden crisis. This has been a glacial erosion,” he said.
A survey by the Pew Research Center last year reported that three-quarters of respondents thought the cancellation of the evening newscasts would be an “important loss” to the country. Mr. Rosenstiel said, “None of these news division presidents wants to be the first guy to kill an evening newscast.”
Not that it would be their call. That decision would fall to the networks’ corporate parents. Executives from CBS News and ABC News said the top corporate executives for both networks remained outspoken supporters of the news divisions.
ABC employees were reviewing buyout packages last weekend. Eligible staff members have until March 26 to decide whether to leave. If ABC cannot meet its goal, layoffs will follow.
Mr. Westin said ABC News could no longer afford to support a worldwide staff of about 1,500, with bureaus in cities foreign and domestic, most with traditional TV news work forces: camera operators, sound engineers, tape editors, assignment editors and, of course, correspondents, many with substantial salaries.
More journalists will become jacks-of-all-trades, wielding cameras, microphones and lights, as well as lists of interview questions. More production work will be conducted out of New York. “The ones who fear the most from the cuts are the ones that have a single function,” one ABC staff member said.
Mr. Westin said high-priced and purely cosmetic talent would become an increasingly endangered species. “There have been people in television news — very successful people — who do not write,” he said. “We are going to definitely require more of our journalists.”
Mr. Westin said he did not think the cuts would compromise ABC’s journalism, but not everyone shares his confidence. One veteran ABC News executive said, “Clearly the signal is: It’s not important to create anything new. We simply have to figure out a way to manage it cheaply.”
CBS, similarly, is trying to do the same with less. In an interview after its layoffs in early February, the CBS News president, Sean McManus, said the organization was figuring out how to “utilize our resources in a more efficient way.”
NBC News, meanwhile, remains the envy of the business, largely because of its decision in 1996 to start up a separate cable news channel.
The total work force at NBC News — which includes MSNBC — is 1,100, the size ABC now aspires to be. CBS is believed to have fewer than 1,400 on staff.
So far, Web revenue is a rather small part of the broadcast networks’ bottom lines, although Mr. Westin said ABC’s digital income was “up substantially.”
But if digital revenue cannot offset ad losses, Mr. Heyward suggested there was high ground from the flood if the networks could find a way to make their news stand out.
“The notion of investing more in distinctiveness and less in sameness is critical,” he said. That means more enterprise reporting and less overlapping coverage of news that cable handles, like reporters standing in snow drifts with yardsticks.
But the networks will surely stick it out, he predicted, if only because they do not want to see their competitors win.
“I sometimes compare it to three people in a leaky boat,” Mr. Heyward said. “Each one sees an island shimmering in the distance and starts thinking: I could jump out and swim for the island and maybe I could make it.
“On the other hand, I could drown and make the boat lighter so the other two make it. I think you are going to see everybody staying in the game because everybody knows leaving guarantees a longer lease on life for their competitors.”