Before Katie Couric was signed last year, rumors surfaced that Comedy Central's Jon Stewart might be in the running to anchor
CBS Evening News
The idea may not be as ludicrous as it sounds. If Stewart did anchor a Big 3 evening newscast, young adults might actually watch it.
Short of that, they will continue to ignore such traditional news sources in favor of mavericks like Stewart's The Daily Show, which proudly bills itself as "the most trusted name in fake news."
So say media experts, scholars, numbers crunchers, and, most important, young adults themselves.
"I think of watching network newscasts as something my parents do," says University of Pennsylvania graduating senior Jen Jablow, 22, an anthropology major from Somerset, N.J.
"I can't imagine my friends sitting down to watch an actual network newscast at 6:30 because we're doing other things at that time. It's a lot quicker to go online. I customize my news."
Like many of her classmates, Jablow uses the Peabody-winning Daily Show (11 p.m. Monday through Thursday) as a springboard to pursue real stories on the Internet and on National Public Radio.
Others, like Drexel University senior Craig Eisenberger, see Stewart, a flag-waving liberal, and his band of merry pranksters as a primary information source.
The Daily Show "is geared toward people who can think more critically," says Eisenberger, 21, a communications major from Freeland, Pa. "If you watch Fox News at 10, you can find out what can kill you in your kitchen."
Regardless of Daily Show's yuks, it "provides more news than most undergrads get, anyway," notes St. Joseph's University graduating senior Lauren Taniguchi, 22, of Bridgeton, N.J.
While The Daily Show doesn't do original reporting - other than what its faux correspondents make up - it weaves real news clips with biting satirical commentary.
With a network evening news format that's remained virtually unchanged - and unfunny - for 40 years, it's no surprise that young adults take a pass.
This is a generation, after all, raised on the savagely barbed topical lampoonery of The Simpsons and South Park. Irony is mother's milk to them.
The median age of Big 3 news viewers hovers around 60 - twice as old as that of Comedy Central.
Only 10 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds watching TV are tuning in to the evening news on ABC, NBC and CBS combined this season, according to figures provided by Nielsen Media Research.
By comparison, 13 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds say they watch The Daily Show regularly as an information source, according to a study released in January by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
"Young people grew up on Napster and the ability to download whatever they want, whenever they want," says Dana Young, 31, assistant professor of communication at the University of Delaware.
"They reprocess it, mash it up. They like to have control and a feedback loop. They can't relate to anchors."
Jon Banner, executive producer of the top-rated ABC World News, says he and his peers are not concerned.
ABC's expanding presence in the digital world doesn't mean the 6:30 p.m. World News is headed for extinction, he insists. (Charlie Gibson's live 15-minute weekday Webcast logged 50 million downloads from January '06 to January '07, Banner says.)
"For the foreseeable future, there is still value in getting a half hour of well-told, concise stories at 6:30 about the day's events," says Banner, 39.
Banner predicts that young adults will become network-news watchers as they age and settle down. Karen Shuey, a senior journalism major at Temple University, disagrees.
"My generation will never go back to traditional news sources," says Shuey, 21, from Lebanon, Pa. "TV news will eventually die out."
The networks, she says, "focus too much on human-interest stories. They're too consumed by their own interests and their ownership to report controversial issues."
Easy as it is to blame the state of network news on, say, The Daily Show, it wouldn't be fair, says the show's executive producer.
"If young people find that we're the most appealing way to get news, that speaks to everyone else's failure, not our success," notes D.J. Javerbaum. At 35, he's three years younger than the median age of his program's viewers.
"As I see it, we have no obligation to have any kind of journalistic integrity. As comedians, we need to have comedic integrity."
Politically, The Daily Show is no joke.
According to a Pew Research Center study, one in five 18-to-29-year-olds reported regularly getting news about the 2004 presidential campaign from late-night comedy shows - up 12 percent over the 2000 race.
Moreover, the '04 numbers were almost even with those for traditional news sources.
Kathleen Jamieson, director of Penn's Annenberg Policy Center and coauthor of the just-released Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, is a major Stewart fan.
"He's smart. He makes me laugh. He's very good at tracking inconsistency and hyprocrisy in politics. I've written books about the problems of tactical coverage of politics by reporters. He does it in three minutes."
Or, as the University of Delaware's Young puts it: "He does better in 22 minutes criticizing the norms of journalism than I do in a semester. I should hate him."
Traditionally, people have gleaned political information from nontraditional news sources such as comedy, Jamieson says.
For young adults, funny is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. In Jamieson's words, "they get information in places they're willing to go."
Case in point: Matthew Kolasa, 19, a Penn junior from Princeton majoring in philosophy and politics, watches The Daily Show "chiefly for the laughs," but learns something, too.
"Within his political satire, Stewart makes really interesting points," Kolasa says. "He can make an argument with such smartness and wit. I think the U.S. senators could take a lesson from him."
Occasionally, The Daily Show makes political news: Republican Sen. John McCain announced his '04 presidential candidacy on the show. John Kerry's first interview on the Swift boat controversy was with Stewart.
Despite snippets of real news, however, rest assured The Daily Show is in no danger of going straight. Executive producer Javerbaum compares it to eating an entire pizza, with a spinach topping.
"You can kid yourself that you're getting your veggies and you're healthy. In reality, we do have veggies, but we also have lots of cheese and low-grade flour. We make no bones about it."
Clearly, young adults prefer the cheese.