When the formula doesn’t work

Peter Johnson at USAToday tells us that neither ABC nor CBS are in a hurry to replace their primary anchors, and — more importantly — that ratings haven’t changed for either network since Rather stepped down and Jennings departed to do battle with the lung cancer that eventually killed him. We saw this same thing when Brian Williams replaced Tom Brokaw last year as NBC’s primary anchor.

According to conventional TV news wisdom, this should not be happening. When Williams replaced Brokaw, viewers “should” have drifted to Rather or Jennings. Now that they’re gone too, viewers “should” be drifting to Williams. So what’s going on?

Firstly, the development and promotion of the anchors has always been the top strategy of any TV news organization. Network evening news broadcasts even included the name of the anchor as part of the program’s title, something I’ve always wondered about. In TV, when the ratings go up, the anchors get bonuses; when the ratings go down, the anchors get fired. Live by the anchor, die by the anchor. In truth, much of the entire news consulting business is built on the concept of making people with certain cosmetic attributes into bigger-than-life celebrities, so that people will “love” them and become or stay loyal to “their” programs. Over the years, this was a key factor in shifting the focus away from the news itself and onto the people presenting the news. It was easy, and it worked — or so we thought.

But viewing habits are complex and multi-faceted, and formulas for “capturing a news audience” through anchors restrict possibilities and limit creativity. These formulas have also ruined lives and created the payroll disparity that exists in newsrooms today.

And now we have evidence that viewers are, once again, smarter than our formulas. Who knew?

This will be interesting to watch.

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