Center stage

The new order of network anchors takes the spotlight on election night

November 07, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

The new order of network anchors goes head to head on a major national story for the first time tonight, as TV's most powerful news organizations go all out in their coverage of the mid-term elections that could change the balance of power in Congress and elsewhere.

On such nights and with such stories are newscaster credibility and long-term viewer loyalty built.

"It's all hands on deck, and nobody's counting on sleep around here on election night," says Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News, which has established itself as No. 1 in nightly ratings with about 8.9 million viewers, beating Charles Gibson's second-place newscast on ABC, which had 8.4 million viewers last week. The CBS Evening News, where Katie Couric two months ago completed a historic changing of the guard as the first female solo lead network anchor, is in last place with 7.3 million viewers.

The media world has changed immensely since the three networks alone delivered the outcome of the major elections to the nation. Cable news channels, as well as innumerable blogs and Web sites that didn't exist even a few years ago, now offer a torrent of instant information.

And, yet, with contested vote counts and races too close to call, the network anchors on election night could recapture the stage and the voice of authority that was theirs alone when many American families gathered for dinner with the voices of CBS' Walter Cronkite or NBC's Chet Huntley in the background.

"This is the Olympic trials for '08 - slightly larger than that because of what might happen," Williams says. "We could see a sea change, and we could see a change of tide not unlike the Bay of Fundy. Election night is fantastic. It's catnip. It's crack. It's the best, and I cannot wait."

No one will have a more impressive lineup at the anchor desk tonight than NBC, a result of the care and planning that the network put into its transition from Tom Brokaw in that role. He retired in 2004 after 22 years in the job.

Brokaw will join Williams at the anchor desk, along with Tim Russert, NBC's Washington bureau chief and host of the Sunday morning talk show Meet the Press.

Of the three who ruled network news airwaves for two decades, Brokaw is the only one who will be back on the job tonight. ABC's Peter Jennings died in 2005 from lung cancer, and Dan Rather was forced out of the CBS anchor job that same year after a flawed report on President Bush's military career.

Rather left CBS altogether in June to join HDNet, where he will launch a weekly newsmagazine on Nov. 14. Rather will appear as a guest tonight on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The 75-year-old former anchorman's signature "Ratherisms" on election night were at times lampooned, but became a fixture for Americans on election coverage. Late on election night in 2000, for example, he described the presidential race as still being "hotter than a Laredo parking lot ... or a Times Square Rolex."

For all the interest in seeing the new network anchors on their first big story after the era of Jennings, Rather and Brokaw, cable channels CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, which have become much larger forces on election coverage, will offer continuous coverage throughout the night. Brit Hume will be at the anchor desk for Fox, while Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann will front the coverage at MSNBC.

The networks will try to counter instantaneous cable coverage tonight with Web sites that have grown tremendously in the past two years. They offer the latest vote counts, exit polling data and analysis. Much like newspapers, the networks see tonight as a potential landmark moment in their digital future, and they are promising a strong online effort - including with their TV anchors.

The media landscape is changing, but the need for an experienced on-air presence to lead viewers through the flood of information remains, according to news executives.

Williams makes a point of acknowledging his debt to the anchorman he succeeded, Brokaw, and the dues he paid to become NBC's point man tonight.

"I have a great advantage - a decade as Tom's understudy," he says. "You can earn a master's in politics by osmosis that way. And remember, when I was at MSNBC in 2000, we went all night on that presidential election night. We treated our MSNBC election coverage as no less significant than that of the NBC television network. And, by the way, Steve Capus was the executive producer then at MSNBC - the very same guy who is now running NBC news. ... So, we've been there."

The 48-year-old says he has learned from the controversies surrounding networks making premature calls of victory or defeat.

"We're going to go overboard on caution," Williams says. "We're going to take great pains to tell people, `Look, this is our process. Here's where we are getting our numbers from.' I would rather be right and be four minutes late on a call than jump the gun and get it wrong."

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