For newscasts, a time of transition

With Ted Koppel's departure, another familiar face is gone


With Ted Koppel's departure last night from ABC's Nightline, the face of the ever-changing daily news became even less familiar. Koppel, who signed off for the final time with his standard line, "For all of us here at ABC News - good night," was the fourth network news anchor to leave his position in what seems to have been a yearlong exodus of newsmen who defined the business.

After 20 years with virtually no change, all three major networks have lost, for various reasons, their news anchors: Tom Brokaw retired in December from NBC Evening News; Dan Rather in March resigned from CBS Evening News, and Peter Jennings left the anchor desk of ABC World News Tonight in April and died of lung cancer four months later. Cable television, too, is experiencing head-spinning turnover.

An unprecedented changing of the guard is under way. At NBC, Brian Williams is ensconced in Brokaw's old seat. On cable TV, the ascension of Anderson Cooper to a prime-time lineup spot this month led to the departure of Aaron Brown, CNN's previous flavor of the day at the anchor desk. And Monday, a trio of less widely recognized correspondents will take Koppel's place on a revamped Nightline.

Nonetheless, one year into the transition, what will come next for the medium through which tens of millions of Americans get their news - and, in many cases, their idea of the world beyond their doors - is far from certain.

"The future of network news is less clear than at any time in my memory," said Sandy Socolow, whose tenure as former Washington bureau chief and executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite extends back to the 1960s. "I don't think anybody can anticipate what it's going to look like two to three years from now - particularly the evening newscasts on the traditional networks of CBS, NBC and ABC."

In January, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said the network was going to "reinvent" the evening news. In June, he ordered 10 prototypes of reinvented newscasts from CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

This month, when Heyward was replaced by Sean McManus, Moonves told The Sun: "Everybody will have to give us a little more time until we proceed to the future of the evening news."

One of McManus' first acts after taking over Nov. 7 was to ask Bob Schieffer, 68 (who stepped in at the anchor desk after Rather left in March), to stay on a little longer - perhaps until the reinvented future arrives or Today Show anchorwoman Katie Couric becomes available this spring under the terms of her contract at NBC.

"We have never had a successful woman news anchor at night, and that is one of the few fields left for Katie to conquer, which could well be the reason CBS is trying to buy time with an extension for Schieffer," said Lee Thornton, Eaton professor of broadcast news at the University of Maryland and a former CBS News White House correspondent.

"But if we talk about the real problems facing network news, the least of them is Sean McManus and Les Moonves waiting for Katie Couric to come along. What's facing all of the evening newscasts is whether they are going to exist at all in a few years. The change is coming so fast and furious, no one in TV news seems to know how to adapt."

And it is not only the nightly newscasts that are in jeopardy of disappearing, according to one of the executives with the power to make that happen: "The news divisions themselves have to face the fear of becoming obsolete," Moonves said.

"For all three evening newscasts, the average [age of viewers] is 60 years old. Obviously, we're being attacked by the cable news channels, as well as the Internet, where young people are getting their news from different sources. Plus, there are fewer stars in the news world today than there were before. In the end, it's really about making news relevant for younger people - having it still be a productive part of their lives and a productive part of the network television business."

The short-term personnel changes that will complete the changing of the guard are relatively easy to predict. McManus told The Sun that he is aggressively going to pursue big-name stars "when they become available," and there is little doubt CBS News will go after Couric with an open checkbook this spring.

Meanwhile at ABC, the network is expected to announce before the end of the year that Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff will be the permanent replacements for Jennings at World News Tonight - with Charlie Gibson, who is sharing anchor duties with Vargas, returning to Good Morning America.

In that sense, Jim Lehrer, 71, who has been at the PBS anchor desk 30 years, is correct in questioning whether it is the end of the era of the anchorman: "I think what's passing are some individuals: Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and others," he told The Sun.

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