TV News Can’t Sidestep Turbulence as Election Approaches

TV News Can’t Sidestep Turbulence as Election Approaches

By Oghale May7,2024

Television news may have never been this unsettled six months before a presidential election.

ABC News is in the throes of change, after its president announced on Sunday night that she was leaving. The parent company of CBS is in the midst of a sale process, which could leave the news staff with a new owner. NBC is just weeks removed from an on-air revolt in which prominent anchors questioned leadership. CNN employees are still settling in with a new chief executive, who is promising a different direction.

Much of the challenge for television news divisions is, at its core, how to navigate a fast-evolving business. Evening newscasts, prime-time cable shows and morning programs continue to draw large audiences, but their viewership is growing older and steadily declining.

Instead, viewers are flocking to less lucrative streaming services, leaving the parent companies of the networks less sure-footed. The networks are trying to invest in that future — building out streaming hubs and hiring on-air talent and producers for their digital channels — all while keeping a close eye on traditional television, still a profitable business that helps fund those investments.

And all of this is happening as news organizations face one of the trickiest journalistic assignments: an especially divisive presidential race.

“At a time when television news organizations face one of their most important challenges and responsibilities in covering a national election, they’re also facing significant internal challenges,” said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who now works with a group of M.I.T. researchers studying the future of news. “The last thing they need is internal disarray.”

Many people in the industry say the news organizations still have plenty of resources and experience to ably cover major news events in the coming months and years. Mr. Heyward likened the teams at TV news stations that cover presidential elections to “a well-oiled machine.”

Yet in recent months, there have been numerous distress signals.

Layoffs have been rampant at print, radio and television news organizations throughout the country for over a year. A Gallup poll found that the level of trust in the news media tied a record low last year, over the half-century that the question has been asked.

CNN has gone through several leadership changes since 2021, and its viewership is down considerably from just a few years ago. CNN’s current chief executive, Mark Thompson, has acknowledged that the network is confronting an “existential question,” and that the company is exploring a new digital strategy.

The president of ABC News, Kim Godwin, the first Black woman to run a broadcast news division, had a difficult run in the position from nearly the get-go. ABC’s parent, the Walt Disney Company, tapped her from CBS in 2021 to help smooth over a culture that was rocked by some internal strife, including an episode in which an executive was let go after being accused of making racist remarks.

The headaches piled up fast for Ms. Godwin. Employees questioned her leadership style after a few high-profile departures and the ouster of several senior executives, including those involved with news gathering and talent relations. Her hands-off approach also rankled many.

In 2022, after it was publicly revealed that the “GMA3” anchors T.J. Holmes and Amy Robach were romantically involved, Ms. Godwin initially kept the two on the air. It took her several days to reverse course, after the relationship had set off a wild tabloid spectacle. The pair left the network nearly two months later.

The network’s “Good Morning America” has had ratings trouble. Its top rival, NBC’s “Today,” has notched ratings wins in a key metric — adults under the age of 54 — for many months, and even “CBS Mornings” has bested “G.M.A.” several times over the last five months, a highly unusual development.

The corporate calculus also shifted for Ms. Godwin — and is reflective of the increasing pressure on traditional media companies. The Disney executive who hired her, Peter Rice, was fired a year after her arrival. Months later, the person who pushed out Mr. Rice, the Disney chief executive Bob Chapek, was let go by the company’s board.

Little more than a year after she was hired, Ms. Godwin had two new bosses: Robert A. Iger, Disney’s current chief executive, and Dana Walden, a co-chairman of Disney Entertainment, who succeeded Mr. Rice.

With growing concerns over Ms. Godwin’s performance, she would soon have a third new boss: Debra OConnell, a nearly three-decade Disney veteran who effectively took over responsibility for ABC News in February.

Ms. Godwin signed a contract extension and retained her title, but the arrangement lasted only a few months. In a note to employees on Sunday night, she said she was leaving broadcast journalism altogether and departing the network “and this profession with the sincerest sense of pride, accomplishment and gratitude.”

Ms. OConnell said she would oversee the news division “for the time being,” a suggestion that someone will eventually be tapped to run ABC News day to day.

Ms. OConnell has plenty of experience in sales, marketing and distribution, but little experience as a journalist. Her appointment was in keeping with how media executives seem to be handling leadership positions at their news divisions, which in recent decades normally went to people who had spent years working as news producers.

Wendy McMahon, the chief executive of CBS News, has a background in local television. Cesar Conde, the chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, has limited journalism experience and was tapped after a successful run at Telemundo.

In March, Mr. Conde and several of his top lieutenants in the news division confronted a withering internal backlash after they hired Ronna McDaniel, the former chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, as an on-air contributor. She was let go within days, and Mr. Conde took responsibility for the hiring.

But Mr. Conde had been hired for his acumen as a businessman, like many others as all these companies navigate a rapidly changing business model.

“Your core product, on which you’ve built your business, the linear newscast, has little or no relevance to the next generation of news consumer,” Mr. Heyward, the former CBS News president, said. “All of these companies have to reinvent themselves on the fly, which is a difficult thing to do.”

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By Oghale

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