NBC has a chance to reinvent television news without the plastic personality, the manufactured celebrity, the staged reality, the smarmy transitions, the bullshit BREAKING NEWS, the weather panic, the repetition, the predictability, the sensationalism, the insulting simplicity, the false balance, the lying anchor, and the single point of failure that has been its business model.
It could. But will it?
The entire structure of NBC news is still built around Brian Williams: The news is who reads it. The star is the star, the news merely his vehicle. They really believe we didn’t watch the news. We watched Brian. But no more.
Now NBC’s executives have set themselves up to tread water for six months—not incidentally insulting Lester Holt as a mere placeholder when they could set precedent with a solo African-American network news anchor.
Could it get worse? Can it get better?
Yes. NBC News could have the courage to not only reinvent the form but also rethink its business model and its relationship with the audience, no longer merely fighting for a slice of the geriatric demographic shared by its network fellows but trying to serve the rest of the nation where it lives: not in front of a TV at 6:30 p.m. but online and on mobile.
NBC News could do any of many things.
Yes, listening to Twitter’s universal punchline yesterday, it could replace a comedian with a newsman and hire Jon Stewart to turn its news into something compelling and unique that people would watch, returning news to its true mission: calling bullshit on power and pomposity (such as that on TV news).
It could follow the lead of Vice and give up on the commodity news we all already know, concentrating instead on finding compelling stories with real human voices.
It could become a town square of America with meaningful, civil, intelligent discussion of the issues facing the nation.
It could explain complex stories to us, creating assets we return to online when we want to understand an issue.
It could become a grand crusader for principles and causes: truth, justice, you know the rest.
It could curate the best of news media elsewhere, not rewriting and repeating what they say but giving attention to unique news.
It could forego the star system and make journalism its star.
It could give up the idea of an evening show with its evident corruptions and shift not just to digital first but digital only.
It could give up and go out of the news business. There’s a surplus of what they define as TV news already.
It could surprise us with a vision for TV news that I can’t imagine.
Or it could sit in limbo, thinking that time and we will forgive their star and he will return and everything will be just like it was with NBC No. 1 even among the soon-to-die demo, with cash flow burbling again.
The problem is that the entire structure of not just NBC News but its competitors is built around an anachronistic orthodoxy: This is how we make TV news because this is how we’ve always made it and if people watch what we give them we must be giving them what they want; this must be right.
Someone at Comcast/NBC/Universal/God could have the courage to use this scandal, this kick to the kidneys, this cosmic pressing of the pause button, this blow to their business model as an opportunity to stop and do something brave, something new.
It could happen.