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Stone Phillps & Fading Star Power in Network TV News

Anchorman Stone Phillips, famous for 15 years on Dateline, is out of a job for the time being. NBC announced on May 22, 2007 that the company had decided not to renew his contract, instead letting it expire at the end of June. The move is part of a cost cutting measure imposed on NBC by parent company GE. Letting Phillips go will save the company $7 million a year in salary.

This event is illustrative of two emerging trends in television journalism. The first is the decline in star power in who reports the news on network TV. With the biggest names in TV anchormen now absent from airwaves there seems to be a vacuum of star power. Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather each had a loyal following of their own. They were more than just stars, they were trusted sources of information. The generation of anchors that have replaced these giants still has a long way to go in filling their shoes in terms of ratings and viewer loyalty. The likelihood they this new crop will grow to the same stature of past anchors seems low, given the current fractured news market.

Disinterest in star anchors relates to fact that people care less about where their information comes from than about the accuracy, timeliness, and relevance of the information.

Stone Phillips, the long time Dateline NBC star is out of a job for the time being.  His departure highlights a trend in budget concious news executives seeing increased competition as a reason to cut budgets, starting with the star TV news types, like Stone!
The decline in star power also has to do with the shift of stardom from reporters and anchors to news commentators. Some of the biggest names in news today are actually not in the business of reporting the news, but are in the business news commentary. Names at the forefront of this group include, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and relative new comer Glen Beck, though there is no shortage of others in this growing field on cable news.

This shift away from star anchors and toward star commentators has to do with shifting public perception of the media. Increasingly there is a sense that the “mainstream media” is full of biases. This perception is fueled by the growing distrust in this country of corporations, who increasingly are coming to control the large media outlets. Added to this trend are the increasing discoveries of reporters who have reported false news in hopes of rapidly advancing their own careers. Perhaps the two most prominent recent examples are print reporters Jason Blare and Stephen Glass, the latter who was the subject of the 2003 film [Shattered Glass]. Add to this the famous reporting gaffe by Dan Rather involving forged documents and it is no surprise that many individuals prefer the filter that news commentary can provide to their information.

Perhaps also contributing to the trend toward commentary and away from reporting is the increasing complexity and sheer volume of available information. The public appetite for understanding the world, not just knowing about facts, is growing. Trusted commentators therefore become more important than trusted reporters, since the commentators’ role is to put facts into context, not merely gather and report facts.

The second trend that the dismissal of Stone Phillips highlights is the decreasing interest in television newsmagazines and network news overall. Dateline NBC was aired up to 5 times a week in its heyday in the mid 1990’s. This coming season the show is set to air once weekly. Additionally, ABC will discontinue PrimeTime Live. Even network TV news shows not being cut are experiencing declining viewership, including the network evening news.

As the numbers of viewers decline, ad revenue drops off and shows become less profitable. To maintain profit margins corporate entities come in and try to cut costs. One way to cut a large cost quickly is to lose the expensive anchor.

Network news programs of all types are facing unprecedented levels of competition and this competition does not show signs of going away. With the 24 hour news cycle, people are able to get their news at any point they choose during the day or night rather than having to wait for the scheduled window of information provided by network news programs. Additionally, people have their choice of outlets for news, whether they opt for online news sources or cable news sources.

Not satisfied to just serve niche news markets, newcomers are pushing further into the turf of network news. Where newsmagazines had a huge advantage in areas like celebrity interviews, investigative reports, and human interest stories, the competition has caught up. The internet is now full of celebrity-chasing video bloggers who work red carpets and events capturing interviews with movie stars, models and musicians. Local news stations can now broadcast their own investigative reports world-wide through streaming video on their websites. Even newspaper giant [The New York Times] is creating video segments in the areas of human interest and special reports which are distributed both through their website and through cable TV channels, with print journalists also doubling as on-camera correspondents. For viewers these alternative formats are becoming more popular, since they can bypass any stories not of interest and head straight to the content of most interest. With viewers jumping directly into reporting segments the role of the anchor is diminished or even eliminated.

There is little doubt that the forces of evolution are at work in the eco-system of journalism, and natural selection may just lead to the extinction of the high-paid network news anchor.

by Cameron Hatch
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