Chung, Rather to co-anchor evening newscast CBS denies aiming at ratings

May 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Connie Chung will join Dan Rather as co-anchor of CBS' evening news starting June 1, the network announced yesterday.

The debut of "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung" will make Ms. Chung, 46, only the second woman to anchor a network's nightly newscast. Barbara Walters co-anchored with Harry Reasoner at ABC News from 1976 to 1978.

CBS News President Eric Ober denied the move was a ratings maneuver. However, CBS News is last among the three networks in attracting young viewers and female viewers. Overall, "The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" currently ranks No. 2, according to A. C. Nielsen ratings for the year.

With an 8.3 rating, it is a distant second to "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," which earns a 9.6 rating (each ratings point equals 921,000 TV homes). Closing in on CBS is "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," which earns an 8.1 rating.

"We picked the best available guy, and the guy happened to be Connie," Mr. Ober said yesterday when asked if Ms. Chung, a 1969 graduate of the University of Maryland College of Journalism, was picked because she was a woman.

When asked if she thought she had been picked because of her gender, Ms. Chung said: "I'm told the answer is no." The network also announced yesterday that it will launch Ms. Chung's prime-time newsmagazine, "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," in June.

Mr. Rather, whose contract with CBS News stipulated that he anchor alone, said that the decision to bring Ms. Chung aboard was a "collective" one and that he was a full partner in the process.

"I'm happy. I'm excited," Mr. Rather said. "And know this: This would not be happening if I did not want it to happen."

Mr. Rather said he recently had negotiated a new contract with CBS News, which would keep him at the network "into the year 2000." Part of that new deal involved opening the door for a co-anchor.

Although newscasts have long been regarded as the most important part of a network's news division, yesterday's move underscores the increasing importance of prime-time newsmagazines. It will allow Mr. Rather more time to spend on assignment for CBS' lucrative "48 Hours." The show is expected to earn about $35 million in profit for CBS next year, while the evening newscast continues to lose money.

Mr. Ober said yesterday that the co-anchor decision was an attempt to make "CBS News reflect the diversity of our audience" and to give the newscast "more flexibility" in sending Mr. Rather out to cover major stories.

The 61-year-old Mr. Rather has been a solo anchor since 1980, when he took over from Walter Cronkite. His tenure has been marked by more time on the road than other anchors and he has recently traveled to Somalia and Waco, Texas.

But he has long been criticized for his stiffness as an anchor. Adding Ms. Chung at the anchor desk is an obvious attempt to bring more women and young viewers to the newscast without dumping Mr. Rather.

However, a female co-anchor is no guarantee of success. In 1976, ABC made Ms. Walters a co-anchor with Mr. Reasoner and waited for the ratings to follow. But instead, a feud developed between the two and audience ratings eroded.

Two years later, ABC's Roone Arledge tried what he termed "whip-around" anchor desks. Besides showing off the razzle-dazzle of TV technology, he put Mr. Reasoner and Ms. Walters at anchor desks in different cities. But the audience didn't respond to that either.

Though it wasn't done by a broadcast network, another attempt at co-anchoring was made in 1989 when the cable network CNN paired Catherine Crier with Bernard Shaw for its evening newscast. This pairing also resulted in feuding, and within a year Mr. Shaw was anchoring from Washington and Ms. Crier from Atlanta. Ms. Crier left CNN this year to join ABC's "20/20" as a reporter.

Mr. Rather shrugged off the comparison to Mr. Reasoner and Ms. Walters yesterday, saying: "That was then, and this is now."

Unlike Mr. Rather and Ms. Chung, Mr. Ober said, "Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters did not seem like two people who liked each other."

Ms. Chung said yesterday that she and Mr. Rather were friends, citing the years they worked together in the Washington Bureau of CBS News from 1971 to 1976. Ms. Chung left CBS in 1983 for NBC, but returned in 1989.

"I've been an anchor before," Ms. Chung said, referring to her days as lead anchor at KNXT, the CBS owned-and-operated station in Los Angeles, from 1976 to 1983. "I know how to do it. . . ."

Ms. Chung, who is married to the tabloid TV talk-show personality Maury Povich, made headlines two years ago when she quit a prime-time newsmagazine show CBS was about to launch, saying she wanted to concentrate on getting pregnant and that anchoring such a show would be too heavy a workload. Even though she will now be anchoring both a prime-time newsmagazine show and the nightly newscast, she said yesterday that she was still trying to become pregnant.

"I recently told my husband that I'm going to stop trying to have a baby when Nolan Ryan decides to stop pitching," Ms. Chung said. "Then, I heard Ryan was going to retire at the end of the season. I think I'm going to switch to George Foreman."

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