Viacom: Sell CBS News

Viacom: Sell CBS News

: The only cure for what ails CBS News is to sell it.

I was going to say “kill it.” But that would be wasteful. There is still a lot of good reporting coming out of this old, tarnished jewel. More reporting is better than less.

But one theme we keep hearing regarding the problems at CBS is the “culture” there. Said CBS Chairman Les Moonves: “This is a rude awakening for CBS News and the CBS News culture has to change.” It’s the culture that needs curing. And you don’t do that the way CBS is going about it: keeping the same president; appointing a 39-year veteran to be the new watchdog; refusing to acknowledge the full sins and biases; finding no new means to listen to the public….

The only way to cure this culture is to kill it. And the only way to kill the culture — aside from killing the patient — is to sell it.

Note that I did not say “merge.” In a merger, the CBS snots would act like the top dogs still. Hey, they’d say, we come from the Tiffany Network; we’re CBS, ferchrissakes.

They need to be humbled.

Considering what has been happening lately — Rathergate and ratings that keep dropping — you’d think they’d be humbled already. But they’re not. It’s that damned culture. It’s harder to kill than yogurt.

This makes great business sense for Viacom: I’m sure they don’t really want to be in the ever-shrinking network news business, where audience and then, inevitably, revenue will continue to fall. CBS is overly expensive. Viacom has proven to be incapable of managing CBS News effectively; it’s hard to manage sacred cows, as the Rathergate commission demonstrates (if these guys should have been fired, they should have been fired by management long ago; you can’t manage via blue-ribbon panels). CBS does not have the advantage NBC does of a cable division that can share promotion and cost and benefits. CBS News is the odd man out at Viacom, the cow in the chicken farm. Selling it off lets them concentrate on entertaining us (and dealing with the FCC) and doesn’t affect the brand and audience on the rest of CBS at all. So Viacom should sell CBS News — and its news timeslots — and make a good buck on the deal.

And this makes sense for the future of CBS News, for it demonstrates to everyone there that the future of network news is not network news. It’s cable. It’s the internet. It’s mobile. It’s news on demand: anywhere, anytime news. It’s conversation that leads to news and follows news. It’s news produced by citizens or, to paraphrase Jay Rosen: Our producers are viewers and our viewers are producers. (See the start of Jay’s and my prescription here.) It’s news distributed by the public, like Jon Stewart’s Crossfire and tsunami videos. It’s news remixed by the public, adding editing and value and credibility along the way. It’s news that serves no end of niches and no more masses. It’s nothing like CBS News today.

And besides, the new bosses would have the balls to fire Dan Rather’s ass — and Andy Heyward with him.

So who should buy it? The candidates:

CNN: Well, that is the first, most obvious, and frequently cited nominee. And it makes sense: CNN needs a broadcast outlet to share promotion and cost. They already have a news operation and it’s run more efficiently than CBS. The staff at CBS would find them more palatable than some of the other choices I’ll list.

Fox: Shushing antitrust worries, think about the possibilities: Fox buys CBS and turns it into the kernal of a liberal cable news channel. So we get right TV and left TV: now that’s fair and balanced. Oh, sure, it’s impossible to imagine a greater culture clash than Fox and CBS News, but that’s precisely what makes this such an entertaining prospect.

The New York Times or Washington Post: This teaches a lesson in reverse: The future of print news isn’t print anymore, folks. It’s everything I listed above. The problem with these organizations is, of course, that they think of themselves as the Tiffanys of print. Or perhaps it would shake up their old ways. Long shot.

The Guardian: They want a beachhead in the U.S., having contemplated American publications. The brand is very popular online here. The political positioning is exactly in sync.

Yahoo or Google: They each have news aspirations but they’re as challenged as publishers as Microsoft has been. So they buy CBS News and explode the distribution network, turning every story into a video post that can be permalinked and searched and distributed and commented on.

Comcast: Please no.

The DNC: Why the hell not? That’s one sure way to guarantee that we know the political bias: It’s the world through a liberal lens.

The public: What if they spun off CBS News as a public company that suddenly had to be responsive to that public? What if bloggers bought up as many shares as they could? BlogTV? Public News?

: UPDATE: A commenter adds another nomined Bloomberg.

  • Freaky Squam

    Consider it:
    The tightest news quality standards in all of journalism. They required Editor-in-Chief approval of all anonymous sources years before Jayson Blair was ever hired by NYT. And noboy’s autopsy process is as tough as Bloomberg’s. Reporters have been known to cry at the level of examination when allegations of inaccuracy are leveld against a BN reporter.
    They have more money than God. (And maybe the Sultan of Brunei).
    Great seperation of Church and State. The sales side never interferes with news.
    Independence. The last great independent ownership since Poynter. Having only one shareholder (Hizzoner) means they will never fall prey to the kind of bad judgment that befell CBS a few years ago, when CBS lawyers worried about their personal stock holdings and nixed the Jeff Wigand interview.
    Improvement of TV. Bloomberg has TV experience, but it is limited to pure business news for the hardcore money managers of Wall Street. Buying CBS would open it up to the general readership.

  • It makes money-sense for Viacom to sell CBSNews because in the big picture there is no future for non-conversational, non-interactive news outlets. That includes broadcast news, radio, and newspaper – but chiefly TV, the least interactive of the bunch. Once portability and access become a non-issue, streamed on-demand news will be the norm and the choices will be as varied as the number of blogs out there today.
    Choice wins.
    Accepting the limited selection available through the remote control, there is no choice with TV. No future there.

  • Judy Woodruff

    PBS. Then thy’d only have to switch one letter.

  • Todd

    What about Microsoft? Now that NBC is separating from MSNBC(aren’t they?), it makes sense.

  • Jimmy the C

    Two new possible buyers: C-SPAN or DirecTv
    C-SPAN is a non-political entity. CBS news must be removed from the Network all together, including all current management. None of the management team can follow CBS News to another outlet. DirecTv can open any channel to broadcast the former CBS news.
    CBS network, being the first to do so can place a money maker in the former news slot.

  • David R. Block

    Dang, somebody beat me to PBS.
    Does anybody know what the relationship is between CBS Radio News and CBS TV News? If the radio news is part of the TV operation, then privatize BOTH PBS/NPR and align them with CBS News.

  • David R. Block

    Oh, yeah, I forgot to agree with the Comcast opinion, but in slightly stronger terms: “hell, no.” Particularly if they bump one of the existing choices in my area (as they are prone to do).

  • jordan

    Dear god not Comcast..look what happened to poor TechTV. I’d say Al Gore!

  • The idea of selling CBS is an interesting one — that will never happen. Viacom wants and needs a broadcast outlet. The more likely occurence is that CBS news is closed down or merged with another provider (such as CNN). The cost savings would be enormous for Viacom, and the promotion value for CNN would be substantial. Viacom makes tons o’money from the network as a whole — it’s the news operation that’s dying on the vine.

  • What if they spun off CBS News as a public company that suddenly had to be responsive to that public?
    “That public” meaning its shareholders. What’s the difference between that idea and now? Either way, they “public” it will answer to is one interested in increasing shareholder value. Period. That’s the point.
    Why not make it a non-profit enterprise?

  • Glyn

    There’s no chance of the Guardian or any non-American organization buying CBS; and anyway the Guardian has no broadcast experience and is committing millions to setting up a new printworks to reduce its paper size to a Le Monde type format.
    If CBS was up for sale (which presumably it isn’t), I’d expect it to go to Fox NOT to set up a liberal counterpart to itself but as another right-leaning version. The lesson of free market economics is that it encourages single viewpoints rather than diversity (which is why you’ll have over 90% of radio stations playing the same adult rock rather than catering for minority taste such as classical music).


  • I wonder if fox itself would buy it – if Murdoch wanted network prescence the ownership of CBS might dilute some of Fox’s cable and local subcriber output.
    He may therefore choose to buy in under say the Sky name so that there then appears to be a bit of competition on the right.

  • Here’s another idea: sell it to the viewers.

  • Jeff,
    Posted this as a comment over at Rhetorica, but would be interested in your thoughts as well.
    If the structural biases represent a “professional ideology”, do they also represent a culture? Do the structural biases only influence the culture? Can the culture be changed, “cured” as Jarvis might say, without significantly changing the structural bias? IOW, how would selling CBS/News change the culture without or without changing the structural biases?
    Isn’t the humiliation of the sale a “shock and awe” shake-up of their “fervent faith”? Or, is it an attack on their loyalties?

  • Ralph Phelan

    This only works if you can find someone dumb enough to buy it.
    CBS News’ ratings are plummetting, and viewer trust is evaporating. As a purveyor of liberally biased news it’s in an already overcrowded marketplace (ABC, NBC, CNN, PBS). If you want to turn it into anything else you have to cope with a tarnished brand and a staff in need of wholesale reeducation.
    I say kill it.

  • Karen
  • Mark