End of an era in TV news

Brian Wil­liams was the last big-pres­ence nightly an­chor on net­work tele­vi­sion.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Stephen Battaglio

NEW YORK — Brian Wil­liams’ de­par­ture from “NBC Nightly News” draws a cur­tain on an era of almighty evening news anchors.

The leg­endary CBS news­man Wal­ter Cronkite de­fined the net­work an­chor in the 1960s and ’70s as a trusted, calm pa­ter­nal fig­ure pro­vid­ing a steady pres­ence dur­ing tur­bu­lent times. Wil­liams, 55, idol­ized Cronkite and de­vel­oped his own strong per­sona that was rem­i­nis­cent of the days when the news di­vi­sions of the Big Three net­works — ABC, CBS and NBC — dom­i­nated the media land­scape be­fore ca­ble and the In­ter­net ar­rived.

Now that Wil­liams is leav­ing the broad­cast for a new role at MSNBC, there are no evening news anchors with $10-mil­lion-plus salaries or the kind of big per­son­al­i­ties that make view­ers re­fer to them on a first-name ba­sis. Wil­liams’ as­so­ci­a­tion with “NBC Nightly News” was so strong that NBC News Pres­i­dent Deb­o­rah Tur­ness once said that, in re­search stud­ies, view­ers used the word “he” when talk­ing about the broad­cast.

But the af­ter­math of Wil­liams’ sus­pen­sion on Feb. 11, im­posed by the net­work be­cause of false state­ments he made about his re­port­ing dur­ing the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq, in­di­cates that view­ers don’t nec­es­sar­ily need a high-priced star in the evening news an­chor chair.

The rat­ings for Lester Holt’s ten­ure have been on the same track as the per­for­mance with Wil­liams in the chair. Be­fore Wil­liams’ sus­pen­sion, “NBC Nightly News” rat­ings were down 7% for the 2014-15 TV sea­son among the 25 to 54 age group that ad­ver­tis­ers want to reach with news pro­grams. Since Holt took over, the year-to-year de­cline in that de­mo­graphic has been about the same. The broad­cast re­mains com­pet­i­tive in over­all au­di­ence, fin­ish­ing first in five of the last seven weeks.

Much of that has to do with habit and the fa­mil­iar­ity with Holt — a steady pres­ence on NBC News since 2000 — and the net­work’s sta­ble of vet­eran cor­re­spon­dents, such as An­drea Mitchell, Richard En­gel and Pete Wil­liams.

“That’s the fam­ily that the view­ers know,” said one for­mer NBC News pro­ducer who asked not to be iden­ti­fied by name. “Maybe you don’t have the same guy at the head of the ta­ble carv­ing the tur­key at Thanks­giv­ing. But all of the broth­ers, sis­ters, cousins and un­cles are there.”

There is ev­i­dence that view­ers were al­ready see­ing the net­work evening news­casts that way.

“All of the evening news anchors have been di­min­ished just be­cause of the com­pe­ti­tion of ev­ery­where else, all the other places where we can go,” said another vet­eran TV news ex­ec­u­tive who has worked closely with net­work tal­ent. “I don’t think the next gen­er­a­tions are look­ing up to those guys. Morn­ing shows, for what­ever they’re worth, seem to be the place where the broad­cast net­works are more pow­er­ful.”

ABC has al­ready taken that stand.

When Diane Sawyer was the an­chor at “ABC World News Tonight,” many peo­ple in the in­dus­try pegged Ge­orge Stephanopou­los as her likely suc­ces­sor. Af­ter Sawyer, Stephanopou­los was seen as hav­ing the most gravitas of any­one in the net­work’s news di­vi­sion.

But Stephanopou­los was part of the top-rated team at “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica,” the pro­gram that ac­counts for most of the profit at ABC News. Keep­ing that win­ning morn­ing team in­tact was a pri­or­ity at ABC News.

Stephanopou­los wanted the role that came with the evening news job — be­ing the face of the net­work dur­ing break­ing cov­er­age and spe­cial events such as elec­tion nights. He got it — along with the never-be­fore-be­stowed ti­tle of “chief an­chor” — as part of his last con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tion. The “ABC World News Tonight” an­chor chair went to David Muir, who agreed to hav­ing Stephanopou­los take on the du­ties that tra­di­tion­ally would have been his.

“That would have been in­con­ceiv­able in the days of Peter Jen­nings,” said for­mer ABC News Pres­i­dent David Westin, cit­ing that net­work’s long­time an­chor who died in 2005.

CBS had al­ready learned that a f lashy, high-priced name is not all that im­por­tant to evening news view­ers when it en­ticed Katie Couric to leave NBC and “To­day” to be­come the first woman to be solo an­chor of the “CBS Evening News” in 2006. Although the pro­gram won many awards for its jour­nal­ism un­der Couric’s ten­ure, it lagged well be­hind the NBC and ABC pro­grams in rat­ings. When Couric de­cided to leave, the net­work fol­lowed her with the more lowkey Scott Pel­ley, a fig­ure fa­mil­iar to the CBS au­di­ence be­cause of his many years of work as a cor­re­spon­dent on “60 Min­utes.”

Pel­ley is so in­tent on play­ing down the per­son­al­ity as­pect of the an­chor role that he had to be talked out of tak­ing his name off the ti­tle of the evening news broad­cast. The CBS broad­cast has added more than 1 mil­lion view­ers since he took over.


WAL­TER CRONKITE set a high bar for net­work news anchors.

Ida Mae As­tute Gino De­menico

DIANE SAWYER at “World News Tonight.”

KATIE COURIC at “CBS Evening News.”

Kevin Low­der

ABC gave Ge­orge Stephanopou­los a unique deal.

PETER JEN­NINGS was a re­spected an­chor.

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