Top 25 things vanishing from America: #3 -- Network TV evening newscasts

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This series explores aspects of America that may soon be just a memory -- some to be missed, some gladly left behind. From the least impactful to the most, here are 25 bits of vanishing America.

Several years ago, when my daughter was 18 months old and her TV habits weren't fully formed, I managed to briefly get her hooked on the first few minutes of the CBS Evening News. Because I encouraged it, she could recognize Dan Rather and say his name. It was my version of Stupid Kid Tricks, I guess, and it was fun while it lasted. It's also probably a tradition we'll never have again. I'll be surprised if the network evening news is around when my daughter (now 6) is 18 years old.

Of course, people have been predicting the demise of ABC, CBS and NBC's evening news for some time, and for good reason. While the TV evening newscasts haven't gone anywhere over the last several decades, their audiences have. The New York Times put it this way in a story about the diminishing returns of the evening news: "For all three network evening-news programs, viewing is down, from a combined total of 43.1 million viewers at this time last year to 40.9 million today."

However, that was a story that ran in November 1984, a statistic that I pulled at random, looking through the newspaper archives. Today, the networks would love to have a combined 43 or 40 million viewers.

What we have now is not quite half that. In a New York Times story that ran July 9, 2008, the paper reported that NBC's Brian Williams commanded 7.4 million viewers during the week of June 30, Charles Gibson on ABC brought 6.9 million to their TV sets, and Katie Couric on CBS was being watched by 5.6 million. According to my calculator, that comes to 19.9 million news watchers.

Of course, there are good reasons for this. In 1984, CNN, the first 24-hour news network, was a very new kid on the block, and I'm not sure anyone knew what to make of Ted Turner's creation. There was no Fox News, no MSNBC and, the Internet didn't exist. In 2008, we have numerous news alternatives that we didn't have before, which is at least encouraging. So it isn't that the country is collectively less informed. We're just all getting our news from different places, and because we can get news so easily, any time of the day off of 24-hour TV and radio news stations, or off a continually-updated newspaper web site on the Internet, there's less reason to gather around the TV set during the evenings the way people did during Walter Cronkite's news reign (1962-1981).

The evening network news is surely a goner, if the trends continue. It seems unlikely that NBC, CBS and ABC will be producing news running from 6:30-7 p.m., EST, 22 years from now if the collective viewers are 9.95 million (half of today's 19.9 million). But nobody should weep for the likes of Charles Gibson, Brian Williams or Katie Couric. There will always be a place for news anchors, and I'm sure Brian Williams will be delivering the news at 6:30 p.m., 22 years from now -- it'll just be on MSNBC.

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But it's understandable to be nostalgic for the days when the network evening news dominated, and I certainly am. It was a simpler time when the world's events could be explained in only 30 minutes, including the time spent on commercials, just as it was a more innocent age when CBS and NBC's evening newscasts first aired in the late 1940s (ABC came aboard in 1953), lasting just 15 minutes.

Or if the times weren't really more simple -- think of the Cold War and how kids were learning to hide under school desks to protect themselves from an atom bomb -- at least everyone lived in an age when the country could pretend that all it needed was 30 minutes to understand the world. Now, there's no pretending. It's progress, but that doesn't mean you have to like it.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He suggests that if you want to track the future of the evening network news' progress, you may want to check out the blog, TheFutureofNews.com, written by Steve Boriss, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
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