How Broadcast Can Get Its Groove Back

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Massive staff cuts at CBS' and ABC's news divisions have sparked speculation about how networks can win back viewers who are flocking to cable news. As Fox News surges to the top of ratings lists and networks struggle to cope with a slump in advertising, observers are looking to NBC News as a business model for the future.

NBC News has been able to fall back on the revenues of its cable arm, MSNBC, and continue to turn a profit. The network also downsized significantly in 2006, reducing its news staff by 5 percent. Is this combination of streamlined newsgathering and cable partnership a solution for beleaguered networks?

Possibly, though handing out severance packages isn't going to cut it. Networks need to rethink the way they use newsgatherers and begin retraining staff to work across formats and media. They should mimic the BBC, whose reporters work in small production teams and often file online, radio, and TV versions of the same piece. With 61 percent of Americans reading news online and 54 percent listening to radio news, networks would also be smart to invest in a three-legged approach to news dissemination. CNN's and Fox News' websites are among the most trafficked news sites in the world, a factor that has become vital to their brand value.

If broadcast networks want to partner with cable, they're going to have to figure out what value they can add. Obviously, money-losing broadcast networks want to shrug off expenses onto profitable cable teams, like CNN and Fox News; but what's in it for the cable guys? Perhaps the audience. At 22 million in 2009, the broadcast audience has steadily decreased over the years but still makes cable audiences look small. Whether such numbers will be enough to convince thriving cable networks to throw a life raft to their broadcast competitors remains to be seen, but an anonymous Times source suggests that new cable/broadcast partnerships could emerge in just a few years.
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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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