NBC's Capus Worries About Effect of Hyper-Competition in Cable News

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post inaccurately reflected some of Steve Capus's remarks.

Competition among cable news outlets can create an environment that is "harmful to journalism," NBC News president Steve Capus said Wednesday at the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, D.C. Responding to a question about the increasing polarization of politics, Capus said the "cable side" can sometimes amplify the national rancor.

NBC News is the home of political cable news network MSNBC, which has staked out a left-of-center viewpoint in recent years.

"So are you getting out of [cable news]?" asked David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, who was also on the panel with Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News.

"I don't think the mandate of Brian Williams is the same as Rachel Maddow on MSNBC," Capus responded. "Nor do I think what Fox News does tonight is what Chris Wallace does on Sundays. I think there's a place for all three cable outlets."

Washington Ideas Forum - Full CoverageJames Fallows, Atlantic national correspondent, hosted the panel with the three network presidents. Although the news today is fractionated and smaller, partisan and diverse, spiced with infotainment, where so-called "citizen news" interacted with common news, the three presidents expressed optimism about the future of their industry.

"We've been hearing about the demise of the evening and morning newscast for decades," NBC's Capus said. "Five years from now, they'll say the golden years were ten years ago. There is great work being done. There are still substantial audiences."

Rhodes added that CBS would continue to "play down the middle" throughout the 2012 election, a mantra repeated by the other network presidents. "There's way too much pronouncement about this being the most polarized electorate there's ever been. People were rioting in the streets. I don't see that this is an unprecedented level of polarization."

When people talk about the way America used to be, Fallows said, they often network news as their touchstone. Has the news lost its luster and its credibility in the last few decades? he asked. Ben Sherwood said that ABC's recent partnership with Yahoo News represented the ability of modern news to reach an ever-broader audience with more diverse and exciting content.

"Yahoo in one month reaches 95% of the American electorate," he said. "That means that good quality journalism has a chance to reach 95% of the American electorate."

Sherwood added that the march of technology meant the network could cut costs to focus their resources more on reporting. "Technology means not having to travel with 40 suitcases," he said.

"The last year disproves the thesis that newscasts are finished," he said, citing growing audiences across ABC shows. "It's not just the 22 minutes at 6:30 [that you should pay attention to]. The other 1,418 minutes we're creating content is valuable. We look at those 22 minutes as the center. But our businesses are 1,440 minutes a day."

View the full session at FORA.tv

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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