“My advice to CBS News,” said Larry Gelbart, the TV writer, playwright and comedy master behind the classic CBS program M*A*S*H: “Shut down.”
Here, finally, was an idea for CBS president and chief executive Leslie Moonves, from the man who once wrote about sardonic, wisecracking M.D.’s trying to stanch the bleeding and bring sanity to an insane world.
“Opinion having superseded the factual,” Mr. Gelbart said, “there is really no reason for CBS to offer yet another half-hour to an audience conditioned to the new punditocracy.” Put the old mare down, he advised, “if only to give Mr. Murrow a rest from all that spinning he must be doing these days.”
He was talking about Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of TV integrity who established network TV news in New York for 20 years-from the Battle of Britain to the Kennedy administration-for CBS. What a turn of events! At one time, network news presidents up and down Sixth Avenue-NBC at 50th Street, CBS at 52nd Street, ABC at 54th Street-had a majestic mission and the undivided attention of the citizenry. Sure, there were blowhards and maniacs among them, but New York was once a responsible lever of power, literate and estimable, spurred by a legally mandated public trust and trench-coat-and-tweed news judgment-they informed the nation and checked D.C. power. Remember that? That’s why some folks got misty when they recalled Dan Rather getting into Richard M. Nixon’s face on national TV: He had the mandate to speak truth to power-which is why the right got so mad in the first place. Remember Spiro Agnew?
Now Fox News, the Web, unregulated media of all kinds has soaked the American tablecloth like a spilled punch bowl. And Murrow’s war horse is now the weakest of the Remaining Three Networks that lord it over the media universe like Denmark, Latvia and the Netherlands lord it over Europe. The old network system is decimated daily with every mouse click and each surfer looking for Bill O’Reilly. The ever-widening Cheshire grin of the Bush administration at all of this is no coincidence: With the network bullhorns overwhelmed by millions of little airhorns, there’s no more Cronkite potential. In the land where Brian Williams and John Roberts are anchors, the networkocracy is done. You report, George W. Bush decides.
So the good old days of New York anchors, and big news decisions made at late nights at Hurley’s and breakfasts at the Dorset, are done. With Mr. Rather packing up, Les Moonves can reinvent network news, adapt to new technology and look straight into the future. He says no idea is off the table, to which we say: great!
We asked a bunch of bloggers, writers, comedians, musicians and TV personalities to see what they would do with CBS News, if they were in Mr. Moonves’ seat.
“Tiffany Network would become the People’s Network,” offered Ian Inaba and Anthony Lappé, the editors of the Web-based alt-news site Guerrilla News Network, which has produced music videos for Eminem. “Viewers’ opinions would help shape what stories we cover and how we cover them. The set would be broken down to exposed steel. Reporters would report their own stories, eliminating the overpaid anchorman. Replace all ENG. crews with D.V. cameras.” That means: Scrap the light and sound crew, use handheld video cameras.
“We’d turn our cameras on the other networks, and ourselves, allowing the viewer inside the process of making news,” they continued in an e-mail. “News directors, producers and anchors would write blogs explaining their news decisions.”
The team at G.N.N. said they’d ban celebrity news, broadcast nightly segments called “End of Oil” and “Cost of War,” and invent a Poverty Index, tracking it every night along with Dow Jones. Then Mr. Inaba proclaimed “automatic dismissal” for anyone who “enters Spin Alley.”
“I would turn the evening news into a 15-minute broadcast,” said Matthew Sheffield, the editor of Ratherbiased.com, the arch blogger-nemesis of Mr. Rather and CBS News, “and at the same time, I would allow the affiliates to cut the entire broadcast out and just take stories that they want.” He said he’d also add an hour-long 10 p.m. nightly broadcast, featuring two anchors. “If they had any brains, they’d have one of their anchors be Elizabeth Vargas,” he said, referring to the co-anchor of ABC News’ 20/20.
Cory Bergman, an executive producer at an NBC affiliate in Seattle who runs a TV blog called Lost Remote, also brought up Ms. Vargas as anchor. “Then go one step further and target The Evening News for women, while being careful not to alienate men in packaging and promotion,” he said. “Cover stories that are relevant to women’s careers, security, health and families. Never abandon legitimate hard news for fluff, and stay competitive on the international news front. Then dice it all up and offer every story free on video-on-demand and the Web. Make it easy for viewers to watch anytime, anywhere.”
Mr. Bergman also suggested CBS News partner with CNN, “downsize the news division accordingly and move The Early Show to the entertainment division. Hire an energetic, next-generation anchor for The Evening News, jazz up the production values and produce stories that are relevant to people under the age of 54.”
Tom Shales, the veteran TV critic at The Washington Post, had an idea who that young anchor might be: “Bring over Anderson Cooper from CNN, where he is languishing,” he said. “He will bring young viewers back to network news, and all the commercials won’t be for denture adhesives and erection-restorers. CBS would then have the youngest anchor as well as the most interesting. And the smartest-which they’ve had for all these years with Dan.”
As it happens, Mr. Cooper made his first segment for 60 Minutes Wednesday this month, which may be broadcast in January.
Mr. Shales also said he’d fire CBS News president Andrew Hayward and replace him with … Dan Rather. “It’s the logical thing” for Mr. Rather to do, he said, “and he won’t take shit from the boys in L.A. And every now and then he could still do a piece.”
Adam McKay, the comedy writer and director of the local-news comedy Anchorman, wanted more older, super-intelligent people giving commentary at the end of the evening news. “What ever happened to the editorial?” he asked. “Remember when we were kids and some 70-year-old guy from the Chamber of Commerce would come on the local news and grumble about a stop sign for two minutes? I want that again.
“And I’m not talking about legal experts for the Laci Peterson trial,” he added. “I mean a real Nobel Prize–winning economist giving his or her opinion on Bush’s budget or the deficit.” Louis C.K., the standup comedian and former writer for NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, had the most radical idea. As long as news was going the way of entertainment, he suggested CBS turn the Evening News over to a marginal, third-rate local news operation, in a kind of Bad News Bears meets Survivor. It would be, he suggested, the greatest reality show ever made.
“Here’s what you’d get to see,” he said. “Some of them would shit their pants hard right on camera, and that would be entertaining. But some of them would work very hard and just earnestly try, as overwhelmed as they might be, to report the news as it’s happening.”
Diane Dimond at Court TV did Mr. C.K. one better. “CBS needs to hire Brit Hume away from Fox News,” she said. “Now, before you roll your eyes, listen to me: Hume is a bone fide newsman, the best, most objective they have at Fox. I covered Capitol Hill with him for years, and this guy knows politics inside and out. No one can snow him with the usual political spin. He would also immediately wipe away that idea that CBS is steeped in the ‘MoveOn P.A.C.’ mentality. I could argue this further, but you probably already think I’m nuts.”
Never! Not after Adam Schlessinger of the pop band Fountains of Wayne suggested that flat-lining comedian Steven Wright “read the news off of pieces of paper rather than a teleprompter, while sitting in front of a blank gray wall, with no graphics whatsoever. This would be very funny for many years to come.”
Patton Oswalt, the standup comedian and actor on CBS’s King of Queens, said he would “go Best Week Ever on it,” referring to the popular VH1 news roundup. “Get some of the koo-koo-ka-jookiest, hippest, making-the-scene comedians, non-celebrities and musicians to make snide, knowing sound blips on whatever the day’s big news stories are,” he explained. “Nothing gives people a solid perspective on the issues that affect them like a good eye roll.”
A number of people simply wanted to see CBS News step up to the plate and just report the news. “If you’re doing your job as a reporter, you should be getting calls at 2 in the morning from a muffled voice saying to ‘back off. You don’t know the powers you’re messing with,'” said Mr. McKay. “I get the feeling the only calls Wolf Blitzer gets like this are ones confirming his beard-trimming appointment the next day.”
Actually, Mr. Rather was probably getting those calls, but from a blogger named Buckhead.
John Hodgeman, a writer for Men’s Journal and a former literary agent, had this advice on what not to do: “Please do not hire any of the 500 earnest, incurious, large-shouldered, large-toothed anchors CNN seems to have suddenly hired,” he said, “who all seem to have been recruited from frat houses, cigar bars, and/or auditions for The Bachelor.”
For ultimate news balance, Doug Stone, a TV producer at the History Channel, recommended broadcasting from Broken Bow, Neb., the geographical center of the United States. He would forbid polls and demand all interviews “be available complete and unedited on the Web, with transcript,” he said, with 120 seconds at the end of each hour-long, ad-free broadcast for an independent ombudsman.
Tucker Carlson suggested CBS News turn all of its news programming into newsmagazines, to offer only investigative, in-depth coverage instead of headlines. “Instead of having 45 seconds from Falluja, they ought to have a four-minute dispatch,” he said. It would be 60 Minutes every night of the week.
The ideas from inside the world of TV news were often the least radical: expand the evening news to an hour, steal Diane Sawyer from ABC News. But maybe this didn’t necessarily require wild-eyed change. Morley Safer, CBS News’ 60 Minutes correspondent, had perhaps the most novel idea of all. Yes, he said, he’d like it to look more like The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, but CBS News already had everything it needed to make great network news-talent, money, airtime-and lacked just one final ingredient:
“All they’re missing,” he said, “are the guts.”