Anchors Away

As the next wave takes over for the networks' old guard, newsmen are likely to have less impact than the great names they follow.

May 30, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

As a speaker at an April 1999 banquet in Washington, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams delivered one irreverent riff after another, a few of which he directed at his channel's parent network.

"I'm cocky about my own employer - there's very little they can do to me, punishment-wise," Williams told the laughing throng of guests, largely print reporters and political figures. "I'm already in cable."

Not for long. With NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw's announcement this week that he intends to step down in November 2004, Williams has been tapped to assume a job that he says he has coveted since he was a small boy. He promises that NBC's viewers will not be startled by a brashly different feel to his show.

But through little fault of his own, Williams is not likely to command the same stature as that held by Brokaw, current and former news veterans say. The nightly newscasts no longer drive the networks' news divisions the way they once did. And, unlike Brokaw and his peers - Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS - Williams ultimately may not serve as the defining figure for his network.

"There is a diminishing role of the evening news as the flagship show," said Av Westin, formerly the executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight. "The job of anchor today is quite different. The expectations are quite different from what Brokaw inherited or Rather inherited."

The size of the audience for the NBC Nightly News is about the same as it was a decade ago, thanks partly to the coverage since the September terrorist attacks. During that same stretch, however, ABC's World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News have lost 3 million and 2 million viewers, respectively. Several cable news channels, each of which furnish constant updates, have consistently whittled away at the broadcast audiences, while a greater number of other diversions beckon on an expanding universe of channels.

Other network news programs, meanwhile, are jostling with the nightly news shows for place of pride. At ABC, anchors Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer have helped to make Good Morning America a highly valued asset. But that morning show, originally in the entertainment division, didn't move under news-executive umbrella until the 1990s.

NBC's Today show draws far greater audiences and revenues than Brokaw's show. In recognition of the program's success, host Katie Couric was recently given a $13 million annual salary, nearly double Brokaw's pay. All three broadcast morning shows provide a hard-news summary during their first half-hour. In primetime, news magazines have proliferated throughout network lineups, with NBC's Dateline, which appears three times a week, as a prime example.

"The network news divisions are organized completely differently from [Walter] Cronkite's time," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, which tracks trends in broadcast news programs. "Now, the nightly news is one [show] among many. ... It's not automatic that Brian Williams will be the face of network news."

Thinner resumes

The changing broadcast landscape aside, some people say that the possible successors to the three current network anchors lack their accomplishments. Rather and Brokaw both covered the Nixon White House during Watergate. Jennings was a seasoned foreign correspondent. All three serve as their shows' managing editors, helping to select and shape stories that appear on the air and choose the correspondents and producers who report them.

The 43-year-old Williams, by contrast, came up through local television and spent just a few years as a network correspondent before becoming a cable anchor.

There are few immediately obvious replacements for Rather, 70, and Jennings, 63, although neither seems about to retire just yet. At CBS, Scott Pelley, now with 60 Minutes II, and John Roberts, a national correspondent, are seen as candidates to be Rather's ultimate successors, although neither has become a break-out star.

At ABC, the avuncular Gibson, who is just three years younger than Jennings, is seen as a possible short-term replacement. While the network is trying to cultivate a stable of younger stars, including Elizabeth Vargas and Claire Shipman, there are few women, black, Latino or Asian anchor candidates who are given much chance to succeed Rather or Jennings.

"Television companies are creatures of habit," said Westin, author of a book that argues that networks are uncomfortable addressing issues of race squarely. "There probably is a feeling that the stereotypical white male, now younger, will probably rock the boat least."

But given all these challenges, some broadcast veterans say they are astonished by the resilience of network news. While fewer people watch them than in years past, the nightly newscasts each outdraw their cable competitors, often by a ratio of 5-to-1 or more.

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