The Irony of Rather's Emmy Ratings

Dan Rather played a small part in an ironic night at the Emmys. On the night he and Tom Brokaw appeared on the Primetime Emmys stage to honor their departed colleague Peter Jennings, the Emmys witnessed a 30 percent gain in ratings from a year ago.

Too bad Rather couldn't get those big ratings doing balanced, straight-ahead TV news. Nor, for that matter, can other network prime-time news shows get such results.

There were a few other reasons for the Emmys resurgence -- some new stars and new shows. But those Emmy ratings speak to Rather's long time-complaint about media conglomerates and their view on modern TV journalism: It's all about the show. Rather calls TV news these days "dumbed-down, tarted-up" coverage. The former lead anchor of CBS News said he worries about "fear" running through the newsrooms now more than ever -- trickled down from worries by media conglomerates looking for better revenue and ratings results. Les Moonves, soon to be chief executive of the new CBS Corp., said he still hasn't figured out how to revamp CBS' prime-time evening newscast. For as long as TV news has been a factor in big-time journalism, its brevity of time has been a curse. Scores of minute details can be in stories published in The New York Times or the Washington Post that CBS News could never include.



With its visual and audio elements, TV news has always had a bigger impact. Hurricane Katrina coverage may be a highlight reel full of good reporters looking for answers -- but even then, shows also told lurid, and sometimes unconfirmed, stories of rape, murder, and death. Just the tarted-up coverage Rather would hate. Rather said there was never a worry about CBS News executives backing him when he tousled with President Nixon during the Watergate years. While he didn't need to spell it out, he intimated CBS' current leadership didn't offer the same support.

With TV news these days, you need to shout above the din to make your point. That's what Fox News has taught us. This is the world where loud opinions equate to entertainment - and where the good TV news ratings reside. Faced with such competition, mainstream news organizations like CBS find it almost impossible to grab viewers with important but less "tarty" stories involving government policies, social security, or Iraq.

But give the U.S. viewers a good story about why an "American Idol" judge may have had an affair, and viewers will sing along in a chorus of big ratings.

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