Big Three Newscasts Are Changing the State of Play

There was a time when each of the Big Three nightly newscasts on American television tended to open with the same story — the latest campaign speech, a new government study or perhaps a big snowstorm. That time is gone.


Influenced by cable and the Internet, the nightly newscasts are shaking up conventions that stretch back 50 years, seeking to distinguish themselves by picking different stories and placing them in different orders.

On any given night, one might lead with the Republican campaign, another with extreme weather and the third with an exclusive interview.

“The three evening newscasts have become more different from one another than at any time I can remember,” said Bill Wheatley, who worked at NBC News for 30 years and now teaches at Columbia.

The differences provide a stark illustration of the state of the news media — much more fragmented than ever, but also arguably more creative.

Viewers these days “make their own choices,” said Ben Sherwood, the president of ABC News. “They pick what matters most to them, and we are trying to be adaptive and responsive to those sweeping changes.”

In the mornings, too, the networks are highlighting their differences. On Monday, CBS, which has been stuck in last place for decades, will introduce a new morning show featuring Charlie Rose that promises more hard news than NBC and ABC and no cooking segments or couch chitchat.

Steve Capus of NBC, the longest-serving of the three current network news chiefs, called the “different tacks” taken by the networks in the last year a positive development. “What is going to rule the day, in this age, is unique content,” he said.

On some days, the differences at 6:30 p.m. are substantive; on a Thursday in December, CBS led with Iran’s capture of a United States drone surveillance aircraft, NBC opened with an investigation into the mishandling of soldiers’ remains, and ABC with the mysterious shooting of a police officer at Virginia Tech.

On other days, they are stylistic; on Tuesday, as the Iowa caucus commenced, ABC led with a piece on Rick Santorum’s surge, CBS led with a news-making interview of Newt Gingrich, and NBC with a recap of the day’s campaigning.

There are differences in tone, as well. Scott Pelley of CBS evokes anchors of yesteryear while ABC’s Diane Sawyer radiates empathy for her subjects. These are “eye of the beholder” factors, as Brian Williams of NBC put it. “We are different people,” he said, “so naturally we all bring a different ‘voice’ to our on-air writing and our delivery style.”

The main public TV nightly newscast, “PBS NewsHour,” also differs from the three commercial newscasts; it tends to have more coverage about government and international events and much less about crime and disasters, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, an arm of the Pew Research Center that studies the nation’s news output.

From matching to counter-programming ...

For decades, there were only “marginal differences” among NBC, ABC and CBS, said Tom Rosenstiel, who directs the project. “When one tried something new that viewers apparently liked, the others would assimilate it.”

Now, instead, they are counterprogramming. The biggest changes are apparent on CBS and ABC, which have long trailed NBC in the news ratings.

ABC’s new push to humanize the news and CBS’s heavily promoted emphasis on hard news may make NBC News the Goldilocks news division — not too hot, not too cold, just right.

Then again, some people have different tastes.

“I think it’s a great sign of the times that everybody’s not in lockstep on the first story every night,” Ms. Sawyer said. Her staff members, she said, start each day by discussing “the questions that we think people at home are going to be asking.”

Some staff members at ABC’s competitors privately criticize “World News” for bending too far toward human interest stories; on Wednesday, for instance, the broadcast talked about the tax code by highlighting a California union’s ad that compares the millionaire Kim Kardashian’s tax bill to that of a middle-class Californian.

Is that hard news or soft? ABC would say that question is outdated.

“We don’t believe in black and white distinctions; we believe in relevance as a unifying idea in the choices we make,” said Mr. Sherwood, who soon after taking charge of ABC News about a year ago read “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd,” a book by Prof. Youngme Moon of Harvard Business School.

Although ABC’s morning and evening shows tend to spend less time covering international news than NBC or CBS, Mr. Sherwood can point to any number of examples of ABC’s excelling overseas; Ms. Sawyer was the only one of the three anchors to travel to Japan after the earthquake and tsunami there last year.

“The strategy of doing the same thing with subtle differences — that’s how you end up in the commodity world,” he said.

As at ABC, the bosses at CBS are new. Last winter, when Jeff Fager, the producer of “60 Minutes,” was made chairman of CBS News, he told staff members that he wanted the division to be known for hard news and original reporting. Although mired in third place in the mornings and evenings, the network attracts a huge audience each week for “60 Minutes,” and it is trying to replicate that success across the workweek.

In 2011, Mr. Rosenstiel’s researchers found that the “CBS Evening News” gave more time to two top stories, the economy and the Middle East, than “NBC Nightly News” or ABC’s “World News,” and a bit less time on what the researchers called lifestyle stories and disaster stories.

Mr. Fager said: “I think way too much of the time, news had become, ‘Boy, they had that, why didn’t we have that?’ And then, at the end of the day, the three evening newscasts looked exactly the same. We’re not doing that.”

To that point, the television sets labeled “NBC,” “ABC” and “CNN” in the “CBS Evening News” studio were turned off when Mr. Pelley succeeded Katie Couric on the newscast in June.

“They haven’t been turned on in six months,” Mr. Pelley said in his office overlooking the studio. “In fact, we should probably find a better use for them.”

Some of CBS’s competitors call that attitude willful blindness; CBS calls it a clear strategy to differentiate itself. The network had little success when Ms. Couric tinkered with the “CBS Evening News” format five years ago. But this time “they seem to be making some progress,” Mr. Wheatley, the former NBC executive, said of CBS, while noting that viewing habits are slow to change.

They are indeed. But in the TV season that ended in September, after nine consecutive years of slow declines, the three networks’ evening newscasts all posted ratings gains for the first time since 2002, giving each reason to believe in its strategies.

Mr. Capus of NBC said, “We’re defying the trends of network television.”