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.