July 25, 2018

The ABC Evening News, 1970

I think I might have shown this before, but I really like this clip. It's a promo for the ABC Evening News with Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner, and although it's from five or six years before this week's TV Guide, it ties in nicely with that issue's feature on Howard K.

Two things jump out at me when watching this clip. First, look at how many of the issues are the same today as they were then. There's still conflict in the Middle East, still a focus on taxes and the economy. Substitute "withdrawal from Iraq" for "Vietnamization," change "Ecology" to "the Environment," replace Nixon's face with Trump's, and you're all set. Abortion's still an issue, as is terrorism ("Militants") - in other words, not a hell of a lot has changed over the last 48 years.

Which brings me to my second point: while watching the British Open this weekend, I had to sit through innumerable commercials for NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. There was virtually no content to these commercials - just Lester standing in knee-deep floodwaters empathizing with people who'd lost almost everything. Good for him, but I'd hardly call this news - it's meant to tug at the heartstrings, a soft-serve feature of the softest kind. And you ask yourself, is this what they're paying Lester Holt all that money for? You wouldn't have seen Howard K. Smith doing this: you'd have seen him throw it to Tom Jarrell, and he'd be the one standing knee-deep in the floodwaters. But instead of emoting, he'd be telling us the real cost of the damage, in dollars, property, lives. In other words, he'd be giving us news, not just telling us a story.

After watching Lester's commercial a half-dozen times or so, the normal viewer could only emerge with one conclusion: there is no news content in the NBC Nightly News. It's like Coke Zero, or Oakland; there's no there there. It is, I'd say conservatively, about 179 degrees opposite what ABC was selling in 1970. And don't forget - when this promo was made, Walter Cronkite was doing the news on CBS, and Chet and David were still on NBC.

Conclusion? The news hasn't changed much at all; it's just the way it's reported that's different. Or perhaps I should say, the way it isn't reported. Never mind fake news; I'd settle for any news at all. TV  


  1. I keep thinking of one of the key differences between network news of, say, 1970 and the network news of now. Back then you seldom saw somebody like Walter Cronkite going to the scene of the big story of the day to report live - not only were there technical limitations that made it difficult, but those kinds of things were the province of the correspondents. Cronkite would remain in New York to sort of direct traffic and they'd send, say, Bruce Morton or Roger Mudd, or they'd get someone out of the nearest bureau or O&O to go on the scene. It had to be a truly huge story for the anchor to be on the scene, something on the level of Nixon going to China or similar.

    Now, it's treated as the exception when the anchor *isn't* on the scene of whatever story is going on with whatever week - the latest school shooting, the latest weather disaster, the latest (insert event here). That's what's expected now, just as local news teams have to show the community that they truly care and are always on the scene (with the subtext that "we care because we want you to watch us instead of the other guys"). Which, at the network level, brings with it the additional problem sometimes called "Bigfooting" - that when a lead anchor shows up to cover the story personally, it takes the air out of the room and also steps on the turf of the lower-level reporters and producers who have lived with the story longer and know its nuances a little better.

    How I miss the days when an anchor was truly an anchor, and the correspondents were correspondents, and the nightly newscasts didn't seem so theatrical.

  2. Latecomer's entry:

    It's a slow Sunday afternoon, and I'm looking at the back files for what I might have missed.

    I do remember network news promos, from all the Big 3, past and present.
    I believe I might have mentioned CBS and NBC spots from the early '60s, which were as institutional as all get out.
    CBS was still selling the Murrow Gang (minus the retired Murrow), who were ensconced all over the globe, the TV news pontificate.
    NBC, playing catch-up under Reuven Frank, was charging hard with its comparative newcomers like Huntley-Brinkley, Frank McGee, Edwin Newman, and younger Turks in the hotspots.
    I even found a vagrant spot for ABC's bare-bones news of that period, with far fewer names to promote and even fewer regular news shows to proclaim (you can find most of this on YouTube).

    Looking at the '70s ABC spot, I'm wondering … where's the Hard News?

    What I'm seeing and hearing is '70s style flash graphics over heavy percussion, with names and faces here and there; a blatant grab at the newly-discovered youth demographic.
    A little further checking showed that ABC had been going this route for several years: I found at least two from about '68-'69, while Frank Reynolds was still in the New York anchor chair - and the graphics and the percussion are the same.

    As to your "critique" of that NBC News Promo with Lester Holt, I'm not sure what exactly your complaint is.
    According to you, the Holt spots have "no content" - but the ABC flash-fest does?
    Furthermore, when you write that " … watching (the Holt spots), the normal viewer (by which you mean you) could only (conclude that) there is no news content in the NBC Nightly News…" -
    - are we talking about the actual content of the broadcast, or of your own negative reaction to the promo?
    Something to think about …


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!