- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2007

Dan Rather no doubt spoke for many viewers when he recently accused his former bosses at “CBS Evening News” of trying to revive the ailing broadcast by “dumbing it down and tarting it up.”

Or, perhaps we should say many former viewers, as “CBS Evening News” in the era of Katie Couric seems to be hemorrhaging them.

Quite apart from his apparently low opinion of Miss Couric, it seems to me Mr. Rather gave CBS network execs far too much credit by attributing to them such cynical motives.

They’re too dimwitted to be cynical.

And so, come to think of it, are their counterparts at ABC News, who, through no foresight of their own — rather, tragic luck — claim the top anchor in Charles Gibson.

Consider:

Since the end of the roughly coterminous careers of the Big Three anchors — Mr. Rather, NBC’s Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings of ABC — the networks, each facing declining viewership, faced a choice: Break cleanly from the past and shake things up. Or stick with the tried-and-true Cronkite-ian model of solo, staid newsman.

NBC chose the latter; for years it had groomed Brian Williams for Mr. Brokaw’s job as “Nightly News” anchor. The December 2004 transition went smoothly, and Mr. Williams quickly rose to the top of the ratings heap.

The other networks chose the former.

When Mr. Rather bowed out at CBS — under unspecified pressure following the crackup of his “60 Minutes II” report on President Bush’s Air National Guard service — he was temporarily replaced by longtime correspondent Bob Schieffer. Ratings went up, slightly but appreciably.

CBS eventually snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, though, by opting for egalitarian-minded boldness and crowning Miss Couric as the first solo female anchor in the history of broadcast television.

Miss Couric took over for Mr. Rather last September, to much fanfare and an initial spike in viewership, but the media cheerleading soon faded — and people stopped watching. Miss Couric’s ratings have plummeted. She now trails the pack.

I’m guessing Mr. Schieffer’s modest success doesn’t look so sneeze-worthy now, eh?

ABC News had tried a similarly bold approach to the post-Big Three era. In December 2005, it tapped as co-anchors of “World News Tonight” Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, the first male-female duo since Connie Chung was paired with Mr. Rather.

Because of a roadside attack on Mr. Woodruff in Iraq, which left the anchor critically injured, we’ll never know how the duo would have fared in the long run. Yet it’s reasonable to assume that Mr. Woodruff and Miss Vargas would have met a fate not much rosier than Miss Couric‘s.

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