Thursday, March 03, 2005

As much as I like Peggy Noonan, her advice for CBS News shows that even she has her limitations... while she's great on commentary and editorial, she's no marketing genius.

Her first piece of advice is for CBS to eschew looking for a big-bucks star to take Rather's place. She argues that CBS "should hire a reasonable journalist at a reasonable price and then build a sterling, stellar broadcast around him.... Just put him in there and let America find him". Actually, this is the last thing CBS should want to do or can afford to do. Viewers (at least the ones that are out there) want to hear the news from someone trustworthy and likeable. They don't want to get their news from a nobody. Given the choice between watching a nobody on CBS and a star on either ABC or NBC, they will pick the other two networks 9 times out of 10. With CBS's ratings already low, they can't afford to have their few remaining viewers leave them for the star of a competitor.

Given how hard it is to gain viewers from another channel (think about it: somebody watching CBS isn't surfing over to discover Brian Williams on NBC), trotting out Dan Rather's replacement gives CBS an opportunity to steal viewers - provided there is a buzz about the person they're bringing in. Bringing in a nobody won't create buzz - at least not buzz of the right kind - and CBS would lose a rare opportunity to gain at their competitors expense.

I agree with her that new graphics a new set and the like will not improve ratings - gratuitous graphics is the way I refer to it. Peggy has a great line: (referring to new graphics) "It's a way of covering up the fact that you don't have a clue". Viewers don't turn in, or stay tuned in, because of graphics, the shape of the desk, whether the anchor is standing or sitting, or wearing a jacket and tie or a sweater. However, CBS already has a huge staff of graphic designers whose salaries are already built into the budget. Unless CBS RIFs these people, whether they create or don't create a new look won't actually save CBS any money.

I also disagree (subject to my advice at the bottom of this post) with her advice for CBS to stop following the lead of the NYT. As who I can't remember put it during Rathergate, the networks dwindling audiences leaves them fighting over the shrinking number of Upper West Side liberal types... everybody else has gone elsewhere. The NYT, whatever its failings, is a wonderful barometer of the issues and slants that are important to this audience. Why shouldn't CBS use the NYT as a leading indicator of what its audience wants to hear?

She's on much better footing with her advice to stop hiring Barbie Dolls for network correspondents. But that will work only if the people that are hired do a different and better job than what the Barbie Dolls are doing. Barbies, by themselves, won't create ratings. But given a choice between a Barbie and a Shlump doing the exact same story, America will tune in to watch the Barbie.

I first thought her advice for CBS to flood the world with correspondents was a decent idea, but then realized that that every network can do that. As such, it isn't a competitive advantage for CBS, at least not compared to its network (ABC, NBC, FOX News, CNN) competition. CBS, were they to this first, might gain some viewers, but it doesn't make for a permanent solution.

So, what does this self-proclaimed marketing genius suggest for CBS?

OPTION ONE: Go after a slice of the audience not being served by your competition (Fox has the conservatives and NBC/ABC/CNN are fighting it out over the NYT audience). Perhaps going after the 'the facts maam, just the facts" audience might work (a true no-slant approach, not the conservative no-slant that FOX professes to follow) might work - if there are enough of these people to make the effort worthwhile. Perhaps going after the rabidly hard-core liberal for whom the current networks are not sufficiently slanted: become the preferred news outlet of the Move.On and Kos crowd - assuming, of course, they watch TV.

OPTION TWO: Change the format of the show. Right now, everybody takes the same approach: big story first, lots of secondary stories and human interest junk thrown in. Are there enough human interest fans out there (just how popular was Charles Kuralt?) to warrant building the entire show around such stories. After all, by the time the evening news comes around, most of America has already had numerous opportunities to pick up the big news of the day, whether through TV earlier in the day, the car radio, surfing the Internet while they are supposed to be working. Maybe CBS can give these "I've already heard that" people something they haven't heard yet... whether it is a whole slew of Charles Kuralt vignettes or something else, is something to be determined in testing.

OPTION THREE: spend all the money Peggy has you saving from not paying a big-time anchor and fancy graphics and put it into developing more hit shows for CBS prime time. There's nothing better than having 6 shows in the TOP 10 to create a built-in audience for your news programs.