Solid Bob Schieffer's luring viewers

The CBS newsman was supposed to be only a temporary replacement for anchor Dan Rather


Amid all the buzz about "re-inventing the evening news" and the "death of the anchorman era," Bob Schieffer for the past year has gone steadfastly about doing what he does best: Reporting the news in a conventional, straightforward manner with a maximum of authority and a minimum of fuss.

And the old-school, Texas newsman - who Friday will celebrate his first anniversary as interim anchor of the CBS Evening News - has enjoyed a year unmatched by anyone else in TV news.

Although NBC and ABC have spent millions launching new anchors for their flagship broadcasts, their audiences are in sharp decline. Meanwhile, Schieffer's soars.

According to the most recent Nielsen ratings (for the week of Feb. 20), CBS Evening News is up 513,000 viewers compared to the same week last year. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, however, is down 905,000 viewers, and ABC World News Tonight is off 1.09 million viewers.

"I'll tell you what, we never expected that - that we would increase the size of the audience," the 69-year-old Schieffer said in a telephone interview last week. "I thought if we could just keep it flat - you know, hold onto what we had - and try to build a good newscast that people would watch, we'd be accomplishing a lot. Maybe my expectations were kind of low, but this is beyond my wildest dream - that we'd actually pick up viewers."

Schieffer wasn't the only one with modest goals for the broadcast after longtime anchorman Dan Rather was forced to step down in the wake of his flawed 60 Minutes report critical of President Bush's military career. The story, which came to be called, "Memogate," was based on documents that CBS could not authenticate, and its exposure rocked the news division to its core.

"We had gotten into such a mess around here - morale was just awful," Schieffer said. "When Les [CBS chairman Les Moonves] called and asked me to take this job, he said: `Don't worry about ratings in the beginning. Just try to get everybody back to focusing on their work and looking ahead instead of behind."

As for Moonves' expectations for Schieffer's tenure in the job? "When I asked Les how long he thought it would be, he said, `I'd rather you not speculate until we figure out what we're going to do, but I think six weeks - two months at the outside,'" Schieffer recalls.

Back to basics

One year later, though still in third place, CBS Evening News is riding momentum that has narrowed by half the gap between it and second place ABC. Schieffer's newscast now is within 1.12 million viewers of ABC's World News Tonight.

Last year, Moonves announced that the network would "re-invent the evening news" and do away with what he termed the "voice of God" anchorman model. Instead, Schieffer did the opposite, returning to the fundamentals of presenting TV news that served CBS so well during the Walter Cronkite era (1962-'81).

"We haven't re-invented a thing," Schieffer said. "What we have done is go back to the basics. And what that means is trying to cover the news as best we can, putting on what you think people are going to want to know about, and need to know about, and doing it in a language that is simple and direct. I just think that is the best way to communicate with people - talk to them the way they talk. Put the nouns first and the verbs second."

The approach has been most noticeable during newscasts when Schieffer asks correspondents follow-up questions after their stories. "You know you've got the main story - their report - and then I ask them a little something else to get a little color of what happened, or how it feels to be there. Or, I ask them what this really means, or if this is going to be something that we all need to worry about."

The correspondents initially were "all very leery" about Schieffer's questions. "I said, `Look, if you don't know the answer, just say so.' I told them they could say, `Well, Bob, I'm still checking on that.' Or, they could say, `Damn, I wish I knew the answer, Bob.' I told them that kind of answer - honestly saying you don't know the answer to something on air - will give us credibility, and there is just about nothing more important than that," the newsman said.

Respect the viewers

Credibility is rooted in the attitude one has toward the people to whom the news is being presented, said the one-time Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper reporter.

"When Dick Salant was president of CBS News [in its glory years throughout the 1960s and '70s], and Bill Paley [CBS founder] owned the place, they said, `We're not putting on a newscast for an audience. An audience is what watches a play or an entertainment. You have viewers. You have citizens that you report for. Don't ever call those people out there in front of their TV sets an audience.' And that's what we're trying to get back to today."

Not that it is all straight-talk, folksiness and journalism basics driving the ratings.

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