It was straight out of a reality show. With the performance over, the panel of judges slowly held up their scores, stenciled in black ink on white notebook paper: 7, 8, 7.
American Idol? Olympic figure skating? Not quite. The scene took place late last month in an executive boardroom at CBS News’ headquarters on West 57th Street, and the judges carried a bit more gravitas than Simon Cowell. Manning the scorecards was a group of top-ranking Tiffany executives, including Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of 48 Hours. Facing them stood a half-dozen or so unpaid interns.
The panel was the culmination of a summer-long project that divided CBS News’ nearly 100 college-age interns into small groups to come up with strategies to attract younger viewers to the network’s third-ranking evening newscast.
“Basically the assignment was to come up with a presentation and concept for how you would revamp the evening news, to captivate a younger demographic,” said one intern who participated in the program. “They are not getting the audience that they want.”
Several interns spoke with The Observer about their experiences, asking that their names not be used. (Shortly after an Observer reporter contacted a CBS coordinator last week, interns received an e-mail instructing them not to speak with members of the press.)
Interns said they were encouraged to brainstorm freely, suggesting changes to the show’s anchor lineup, its news content, set design, marketing techniques and any other aspect of the newscast. One ground rule: The 6:30 time slot had to stay the same.
The groups presented their ideas to CBS executives on July 27. Judicial duties were shared by Eric Shapiro, director of the evening news and Linda Mason, senior vice president, standards and special projects, as well as Mr. Heyward and Ms. Zirinsky, according to the interns.
Several groups suggested adding a younger anchor to complement Bob Schieffer: “Someone who a younger audience will relate to a little more than a grandfather figure,” as one participant put it. The executives were also surprised to hear calls for more emphasis on international coverage, according to the interns.
“I think a lot of us felt there was a dearth of international news reporting in American news,” said one intern. “Every other country when you watch the news … you learn about the genocide in Sudan, you learn about these types of international issues.”
The judges nixed a proposal for a one-hour newscast, as well as a plan to eliminate the recently introduced “debriefings” of the Schieffer newscast, the off-the-cuff question-and-answer periods between anchor and correspondents.
“That was a big idea we wanted to get rid of. We wanted to put less emphasis on [correspondents],” said an intern. “They did not like that.”
Executives also dismissed adding weather and sports segments to the newscast, according to the interns. But a proposed increase in “MTV-style” national reporting was warmly received, as was a call to expand coverage of minorities and minority-related issues.
In at least one case, the brass was more enthusiastic about innovation than the interns were. “Podcasting was a big deal to them,” said one intern. “That’s because podcasting just came out on ABC and NBC… That’s just a tiny little thing to us. That sort of showed us that they would rather hear what they were already thinking.”
The reinvention project, not included in official descriptions of CBS’ internship program, was assigned for the first time this summer, in the midst of a period of self-examination for the Eye’s news operation. Mr. Heyward told CBS affiliates in June that the Evening News is in a “process of evolution,” and in recent months the network has looked outside traditional circles to mine fresh ideas for its ailing flagship newscast, including online video and a Web log.
The project was intended by the network to be educational, said Ms. Mason, the executive in charge of CBS News’ internship program.
“The purpose was so they could see how the business works,” Ms. Mason said last week, adding that the project was “for them. This was for them to learn. It was not for us. Frankly, we weren’t looking for ideas for the evening news. We have a whole group of people working on that right now.”
So why bring the brass onto the panel? Ms. Mason said that network executives were the most qualified for the task. “When it came time to judge the program it seemed smart to have senior management involved,” Ms. Mason said. “These are the people who have been doing this line of work all our life.”
Impressed by their high-ranking audience, some interns said they felt their ideas could make a difference at the newscast.
“We got an e-mail a couple days afterward from Andrew Heyward, saying he was tremendously impressed with our efforts and that they were far better than many so-called expert panelists,” said one intern. “We have a feeling that our ideas will be integrated into the evening news in the future.”
And another participant invoked an old corporate adage: Time is money. “Andrew Heyward wasn’t listening to interns present ideas to him to be nice to the interns. Clearly he thought he could get something out of it,” the intern said.
For the network’s part, Ms. Mason said she and the other executives were impressed with what they heard.
“We couldn’t believe how much work, how much research, how careful the interns were. And in fact we thought it was so great we’re going to do it again next year,” she said.
And the grand prize for the winning group? Dinner and a show, say the interns; CBS paid for rush tickets to The Producers and an Italian meal.
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