You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Old bulls fend off newfangled newscasts

- 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.

Why?

Look at the ascendancy of Charles Gibson, whom ABC News President David Westin had considered to replace Mr. Jennings before eventually going with the ill-starred Woodruff-Vargas duo. (Miss Vargas resigned in May 2006 citing pregnancy and maternity leave.)

Mr. Gibson had trailed Mr. Williams until this past January; since then his ratings have climbed steadily. Nielsen Media Research has "World News With Charles Gibson," as the program is now known, leading with an average of 8 million viewers nightly, compared to 7.3 million for Mr. Williams and a distant 6.1 million for Miss Couric.

Mr. Williams, Mr. Gibson, Mr. Schieffer. Hmm. Are you noticing the cross-network pattern of success, too?

It doesn't take tremendous powers of induction to figure out this has something to do with the aging — and shrinking — demographic that tunes into the evening news.

The average viewer of such broadcasts is 60 years old, according to John Doolittle, associate professor at American University's School of Communication.

For whatever reason, these folks prefer their evening news anchors to be male and alone.

"Women on network news feature programs like '60 Minutes' do fine," Mr. Doolittle points out. "Diane Sawyer and Jane Pauley come to mind. But on their own, they seem to get a critical eye."

The news isn't all bad for the news, so to speak. News programming is cheap to produce, Mr. Doolittle says, and advertisers are still keen on reaching viewers, even as their number dwindles.

It's possible, then, that the networks acted too soon by inaugurating the Katie Couric era. They might have milked the old model a bit longer, hoping all the while that a younger public will one day reconnect with mainstream television journalism.

Less optimistically, it may be the case that holding on to the old model was their only real choice — because that young public never will arrive.

Mr. Doolittle says it's an open question whether the network nightly news format will survive at all. There's the continual onslaught of 24-hour cable news — which, combined with increasingly long work commutes gobbling up evening hours, may render the traditional nightly news' time slot obsolete.

And then there's competition from the Internet, which has spawned TV outlets of its own, not to mention the capability of delivering news to cell phones, BlackBerrys and other hand-held devices.

Network news could learn a thing or two from its online rivals.

Blogs and so-called "wikis" (Web sites that allow users to generate and edit content) suggest that what the media-savvy public wants most is to have say in what's news — to, in some sense, participate in as well as consume journalism.

"Perhaps," says Mr. Doolittle, "networks can imitate talk-radio shows and allow for audience response to stories."

Who knows? Dan Rather might still have the anchor's chair today if CBS viewers could have railed at him directly.