NEW YORK – When Dan Rather took the CBS Evening News anchor seat nearly 24 years ago from Walter Cronkite, more than a quarter of the nation’s TV-viewing households were watching the newscasts.

Today, roughly 90 percent of television-watchers don’t bother to tune in on an average night.

He’s not alone by any means. NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who is also planning to retire soon, and ABC’s Peter Jennings are doing only slightly better.

To most, the brutal plunge in news viewership at the three networks and the loss of crucial advertising dollars that followed in lock step may have been secondary to Rather’s announcement Tuesday that he would step down in March after a storied and controversial run as CBS’ main anchor.

To network executives, though, that sour economic news is front and center as network news departments remain locked in an historic struggle to remain both relevant and profitable.

Even though broadcast newscasts still pull in millions more viewers than cable and generate $100 million or more each year in advertising revenue, the downward viewing trend is troubling.

In response, broadcast newsrooms have shrunk. In order to keep costs in line, network news operations have slashed foreign bureaus and cut the number of reporters on the streets.

Today, CBS operates 12 bureaus overseas and six within the United States in addition to its headquarters in New York City. Twenty years ago, CBS News operated more than twice as many foreign offices and staffed them with more than twice as many full-time employees.

“Network news is a declining business,” said James Owers, professor of finance at Georgia State University and a specialist in media economics. “It appears as if diminishing ratings is ongoing, and that means that as a component of the media conglomerates that own them, news is an ever-diminishing part of the business.”

Though none of the three networks breaks out the cost of producing the evening news, Owers said that operating budgets at all three networks are either flat or falling – even as the cutbacks in broadcast newsrooms have affected everything from the quality of newscasts to the breadth of coverage on a nightly basis.

The explosion of growth of 24-hour cable channels, such as Time Warner Inc.’s CNN and News Corp.’s Fox News Channel, have contributed mightily to the networks’ news woes.

But they’re not alone.

The Internet is also stealing away viewers. The immediacy of 24/7 news in places other than traditional broadcast TV has left newsrooms reeling and once-loyal advertisers going elsewhere.

“Because people cannot wait until the end of the day for their news and information, network news shows are under pressure to be different,” said Tim Spengler, director of national broadcast advertising at media buying agency Initiative Media. “The result is that Internet and cable-TV have an advantage for real-time reporting and have seen a share of the advertising dollars move their way.”

Even with its many competitors on cable TV and the Internet, the evening news shows produced by the Big Three – CBS, NBC and ABC – still attract the largest audience to view a news program at any one time during a given day.

Nonetheless, they don’t register anywhere near the numbers they did 25 years ago, let alone during the 1960s and “70s when cable TV was but a dream.

Industry watchers say broadcasters may be at a breaking point and may need to make major changes in the way they present the news in order to stay relevant without alienating their current audience.

Knowing that they are often no longer the first news source to offer televised pictures of an event as they once did, broadcast news outlets are more likely to feature health and lifestyle stories. According to Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, to win more viewers CBS will eventually have to offer something to attract a younger audience.

“I believe CBS will try to find a way to reach out to younger viewers,” said Jones. “But for the short term, the person who takes Rather’s place will probably have to appeal to the middle-age and older viewer.

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