NEW YORK — There's new life in broadcast television's evening news shows, in part because of forces once thought poised to kill the genre off.
Despite repeated death knells for the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts, they've just completed a TV season where all three grew their audiences for the first time since 2001-02, when terrorists struck and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars began. The growth is continuing for the first few weeks of this season.
After years in which the network broadcasts seemed interchangeable, they now have sharp contrasts that go beyond the faces of anchors Brian Williams, Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley. Each of the newscasts, which are collectively seen by more than 20 million people each weekday, changed their top executives over the past couple of months.
News is an obvious factor in audience growth, and the Japanese tsunami, Arab spring, debt ceiling debate and teetering economy all attracted interest. But busy and not-so-busy news periods fluctuate all the time.
Many pundits believed these evening newscasts would become obsolete with the availability of news 24 hours a day on cable TV and the Internet. Instead, the curating function of the evening news has become more vital.
"We all work so hard and we all do so much," said Patrick Burkey, executive producer of NBC's top-rated "Nightly News," which had its highest viewership since 2005 for the season that ended in September. "I get to the point where I sort of have Internet fatigue going out there looking for all the material myself. It's nice to have somebody else do that work."
People follow news, "but they want someone they trust at the end of the day to explain it to them, to show what it means to them. Somebody credible," said Michael Corn, executive producer of ABC's "World News" with Sawyer.
Brand name journalists mean something when people can't trust the accuracy of what they see online, said Dave Marash, a veteran journalist who worked at ABC News and Al-Jazeera English.
Marash wrote recently in the Columbia Journalism Review about the declining number of reported and edited stories on television news, as opposed to journalists talking live or experts arguing. There are fewer of those reported stories on the network evening news programs, too, but they have disappeared much faster on 24-hour cable news. News, or news unfiltered by a point of view, is harder to find on cable.
"There have been enough obituaries written about the evening news to fill a newspaper," said Patricia Shevlin, "CBS Evening News" executive producer. "But it's a very resilient commodity."
Shevlin, Burkey and Corn are all new to their jobs, but not to their institutions. Shevlin has been at CBS News since 1973 and spent most of her time at the evening news since 1989, most recently as the top weekend producer. Burkey has worked with Williams since 2000, first at MSNBC and, since 2004, at "Nightly News." Corn worked at "Good Morning America" from 2002 to 2010, and moved with Sawyer last year to "World News."
The ratings pecking order of NBC in first, ABC second and CBS third hasn't changed since the days of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. The content of the shows, at least two of them, has changed, though. Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose ADT Research has monitored the broadcasts since 1987, said the shows are as different as they've been in at least 15 years.
Since CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager installed Pelley of "60 Minutes" as Katie Couric's replacement in June, CBS has aired a meat-and-potatoes newscast for a serious time.
CBS has devoted more time to foreign policy and economic subjects than either of the two other shows, according to Tyndall's research. Pelley has been to Afghanistan twice since becoming anchor, and his newscasts have reported on that war for more minutes than both ABC and NBC combined.
Pelley has spent more than three full hours reporting on the economy than the other two broadcasts, with a particular emphasis on unemployment, the housing crisis and increased poverty. With Norah O'Donnell as the new top White House correspondent, CBS has also spent more time on Washington politics, a topic that NBC took the lead when Tim Russert was alive.
Shevlin has largely dispensed with the "feel-good" feature at the end of the show that has been a staple of all the evening newscasts, in favor of material such as Byron Pitts' piece on what happens to a dead soldier's body after it leaves Afghanistan.
"You want to leave the viewer thinking about something or feeling something when they see the evening news," Shevlin said. "As long as you do that, you're doing a good job."
During one busy news day, CBS acted fast to report at the top of its show Sarah Palin's late announcement that she wouldn't run for president. NBC's "Nightly News" led with the growing Occupy Wall Street demonstration. ABC topped "World News" with audio tape of a drug-impaired Michael Jackson that came to light in the manslaughter trial of his former doctor Conrad Murray.
Sawyer, the former "Good Morning America" anchor, has brought a morning show sensibility to the evening news, with a greater emphasis on celebrity and "news you can use," Tyndall said. It has become more evident since Ben Sherwood, a former "GMA" executive producer, took over as news division president in the past year.
ABC emphasizes health, medicine and family stories more than CBS and NBC. It spent 26 minutes on the Casey Anthony trial; CBS and NBC combined spent 16 minutes, Tyndall said. The British royal wedding, Oprah Winfrey's retirement and the Murray trial have all received the most coverage on ABC.
The newscast Jennings proudly called "World News" now has less news from a foreign dateline or about American foreign policy than either CBS or NBC.
The broadcast reflects Sawyer's sense of curiosity and adventure, Corn said. It does more on health matters, for instance, because they have a real impact on people's lives, he said.
"We believe we lead with the most interesting story of the day," he said. "There's nothing wrong with not being boring."
Sixty percent of "World News" viewers are women, according to Nielsen. That's a higher percentage than on CBS and NBC, although not by much, and would make the news consistent with ABC prime time's emphasis on appealing to women.
NBC's "Nightly News" tends to stake out a middle ground. It covers more news that has broken in the previous 24 hours than ABC or CBS, which may be mindful of stories that can last longer on the Internet, Tyndall's research said.
Perhaps because of NBC's parent company now owning The Weather Channel, NBC's broadcast spends the most time on natural disasters. Or there may be a simpler reason: "Brian's a bit of a weather nerd," Burkey said.
Of the three, it's also the broadcast that people who were watching a year ago would best recognize today.
"Consistency is a very good thing," Burkey said. "I think viewers know that they trust us and they see us as consistent and I don't see any need to change things up too dramatically."
Said Tyndall: "They're number one. They didn't need to change."