“Another night of consequential news,” said ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor, during his litany of the latest pandemic headlines that opened his broadcast Wednesday evening: “The president speaking moments ago . . . Thirteen patients all dead at one New York hospital . . . A mother of a former college athlete . . . the governor of Louisiana now sounding the alarm . . . what it was like to lose her sense of smell . . . unemployment checks . . . and Prince Charles . . . ”
Ratings are way up for these old-school yet stalwart newscasts, helmed by the figurative descendants of Cronkite, Jennings and Brokaw, themselves descended from ancient anchors of television yore. Around 12 million viewers watched Lester Holt’s “NBC Nightly News” last week, reportedly the show’s best ratings in 15 years; Muir’s “World News Tonight” is seeing a similar big boost, with the coronavirus crisis delivering the show’s biggest ratings in two decades.
In two-plus weeks of staying home, I’ve renewed my faith in the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts, perhaps out of some faintly nostalgic idea that watching it is what grown-ups do, come hell or high water. People who long ago gave up the habit — or never acquired it — are finding a similar solace at the end of the day with a half-hour of Muir or Holt or the “CBS Evening News’s” Norah O’Donnell.
(Or, for a markedly different and more deliberate tone, PBS’s Judy Woodruff on “NewsHour,” who conducted a live interview Wednesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that clocked in at 11½ minutes, an astounding length in any context.)
The network newscast, it turns out, is still the most efficient way to comprehend the whole damn mess of things. To have it all summarized but also safely contained, presented at such a frantic pace that a viewer could never pass a pop quiz on it five minutes after it ends. I took copious notes on all three shows Wednesday (plus “NewsHour”) and still can’t tell you precisely what, in that barrage, managed to stick.
And yet, everything you needed to know somehow manages to sink in: disease and death and $2 trillion, with just a dollop of hope, all of it presented as a tightly edited symphony of words and images in about 21 minutes. The nightly news doles out as much as you can take, but not more than you can take, which is by design.
That’s why so many people are rediscovering it now — shutting out the relentless thrum of breaking-news alerts, social media feeds and, worst of all, cable news. (Unless CNN’s Chris Cuomo is interviewing, and needling, his big brother Andrew, the governor of New York, an unexpected gift of shtick in the middle of a nightmare.)
On Wednesday, the newscasts presented by Muir, Holt and O’Donnell were fascinating for their lockstep similarities as much as their sometimes peculiar differences. “World News Tonight” went hard and heavy on the pandemic itself — a montage of hospital rooms, lines to get emergency care, shortages, a nation on the cusp of mayhem. “NBC Nightly News” felt the same. O’Donnell’s “Evening News,” which broadcasts from Washington, put more focus on Congress and the nearing passage of the stimulus package; it was also the only one to check in with Democratic front-runner Joe Biden (or even say the word “Biden”).
In all three, no one ever gets to talk for longer than half a sentence. The 30-second sound bite is a relic; in 2020 it’s five seconds, maybe 10. Blessedly, this means that a nightly news viewer hears more from doctors and medical correspondents than the extended delusions of President Trump, who barely registered in Wednesday’s broadcasts. They all, of course, gave time to Prince Charles’s coronavirus diagnosis — stop tsking. That, too, qualifies as news, it’s one more fact to process.
In our binge-and-purge diet of ceaseless opinions, network news is almost shockingly neutral, the thing consumers keep saying they want from their news sources. They’d be even better if they had more time to do what they’re hopelessly trying to do, which is be all things to all viewers.
By design, they must inform everyone, from the dullest among us to the sharpest. Years ago, they determined (probably through dreadful focus-group consulting) that the news must always end on a positive word, the great giving-in to those dopes always complaining that there’s never any good news. It’s hard to tell if these segments work as the intended balm; very often they seem like a saccharine waste of crucial time.
“World News Tonight” ended things Wednesday with an “#AmericaStrong” segment about a virus survivor who left a lengthy (and inspiring!) note to his intensive caregivers; “CBS Evening News” showed that video of the Mayo Clinic doctor singing a heartfelt rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” while his colleague played piano (“Something that I hope helps you as much as it helped me,” O’Donnell said). “Nightly News,” in its “Inspiring America” segment, told of Long Island schoolkids performing songs on video for nursing home residents. “Well, they made me smile,” Holt said, signing off. “That’s nightly news — please take care of yourself, and each other.”
Journalistically, the nightly newscasts are far from ideal, for a number of reasons best left to media critics, academics and other assorted kooks to explain.
The minute you tune in, you’re reminded of who their most loyal but waning audience has been all these years: Nana and Pop-Pop.
In a time of such dire news, the commercial breaks seem egregiously disruptive and laughably geriatric. Joe Namath, older than dirt, is hawking a Medicare enhancement plan. Maybe you should be taking Ibrance, Neuriva, Prevagen, Farxiga, Jardiance — ask your doctor. More and more ads: Ensure protein drinks. Salonpas for back pain. Marie Osmond selling Nutrisystem diet plans. Seresto, Sorento, Liberty-bibbity. It can feel as if Nana has materialized in the room, with you now, waiting for Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek.
Are you informed by David, Lester and Norah, or are you just momentarily sheltered? The nightly news has invested decades in mastering the art of both. So let it.