The story goes like this: At the end of the Cretaceous period, the evening newscasts featuring Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather stopped being relevant. Their audience aged from VIPs to VOPs (the average viewer is 500 years old in demo-speak, 60 for the rest of us), with younger viewers lured away by (take your pick) cable, the Internet, bloggers, or podcasts. All week, pundits have been eager to use the passing of Peter Jennings to claim that the importance of the nightly network newscast like the era of the superanchor is now history.
But they're wrong. In times of social and political turmoil, and to convey poignant, difficult images of war, the tempered, balanced, reported packages that network news produces can be fine pieces of journalism. If only network news chiefs would remember that. As they huddle to reinvent these shows and study their ratings, here's what they'll find: Viewership spikes during national crises and elections, and there's a reason. It was at those times that Jennings lived up to his ''editor'' title, inviting seasoned, authoritative correspondents like Cokie Roberts, who's covered Congress practically since its inception, to opine in their areas of expertise.
And this should happen every evening. Promote the guy who's been covering Superfund sites for the Ohio affiliate for 25 years and sit him next to Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson. Give him more than two minutes to explain the latest pollution legislation and let him set the dinner-table agenda. Find experts; then use them.
Speaking of dinner, no amount of innovation can lure viewers back to evening newscasts if networks keep pretending we're living in the 1950s. Really, what news-hungry family eats at 6:30 p.m.? Push back these shows to 7:30 p.m., when people can digest headlines and dinner simultaneously, and perhaps these dinosaurs can rule again.