August 23, 2005

ANALYSIS: Awaiting the fate of network evening news

By Paul Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Well before the passing of
Peter Jennings two weeks ago, critics questioned the future of
the network evening news.

There have been doom-and-gloom predictions about the
evening news for decades, as far back as 1983. Back then,
Walter Cronkite had recently retired, and three middle-aged
journalists named Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw had
just settled into their jobs as the anchors of the Big Three.

But today, the questions have seemed to become more urgent.
Jennings, Rather and Brokaw no longer come into our homes every
night. Brian Williams is network TV's only permanent anchor;
Bob Schieffer is temporary at CBS, and Charlie Gibson and
Elizabeth Vargas at ABC are filling in while their network
decides what to do. And those questions become even more
pressing, not only because of the lower viewership for the
evening newscasts over the summer but because the numbers have
dropped so much over the past 25 years.

But here in New York City, the home of the news media
establishment, few in the know are ready to write the obituary
for the network evening news even now when things are so
uncertain. The three newscasts still collectively draw between
25 million and 28 million viewers on weeknights, even though
the world has changed and fewer people rush home to watch the
6:30 p.m. newscast we all remember.

CBS chairman Leslie Moonves, in planning a newscast without
Rather, famously called an end to the anchor-as-voice-of-God
era in remarks to TV critics in Los Angeles last January. But
Moonves has said that he's happy with the way Schieffer has
anchored the evening news and, until recently, CBS News hadn't
made any concrete moves toward that future. That began to
change in August with the John Roberts-anchored and
faster-paced pilot CBS News recently taped.

ABC News, on the other hand, isn't likely to remake the
format of the evening news. "World News Tonight" hasn't been as
ratings-challenged as the "CBS Evening News." Neither is NBC,
which remains on top in the news ratings after a successful
transition from Brokaw to Williams.

Talking to Williams the other day, it's clear that he
remains bullish on the form and thinks the next generation will
be a continuation of a great tradition and not near the end of
the line.

"If anything, the increase in ambient noise in our society,
the noise on early-evening cable, makes these three broadcasts
a welcome, well-informed respite from the rest of the broadcast
day," Williams said.

The evening newscasts still have the largest audience for
news on television, said Jon Banner, executive producer of
"World News Tonight."

"While the arena in which we operate has changed, the
evening newscast still plays a vital role in the way Americans
get their news," Banner said the other day. "I think the
audiences that the three (networks) get support the fact that
this is something that is vital."

More than anyone, Williams is aware of the fact that he has
stepped into a world different than the one he grew up in when
Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had audiences of
millions more than today. He also doesn't take any satisfaction
from knowing that, with a little less than a year on the job,
he's now the dean of evening news journalists.

"That's a lot like saying the Empire State Building is the
tallest building in New York," Williams said. "It's true but
for all of the wrong reasons."

Gone too, at least for the time being, is the competitive
nature of the evening newscasts. These people, in front of the
camera and behind it, have known each other for years, some
have worked together in other jobs, and others have covered
stories for competitors. The evening newscasts were buffeted by
the surprising early departure of Rather, then shocked by the
illness and death of Jennings.

At some point, the competition will return in full. ABC
News will decide on a succession plan, and CBS will unveil its
long-awaited makeover of the "CBS Evening News." Williams looks
forward to that day.

"At a very basic level, I would like to know who my
competitors will be, and I'm girding for a healthy collegial
competition," Williams said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter