Up next: network news at crossroads

Departure of two anchors comes as networks face shifts in viewership.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The last time the three major networks changed evening news anchors, CNN was an upstart cable service dubbed "The Chicken Noodle News," personal computers were still a novelty, and the Internet didn't exist.

But what a difference a few decades can make. As two of the three major nightly news anchors, NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather, get ready to exit the screen, the networks find themselves facing a unique combination of peril and promise.

More than just the name of the next, presumably male, anchor is on the line. The credibility of network news itself faces one its severest tests in a half century as Americans turn to other outlets for information and new questions surface about the trustworthiness of those who sit behind the desks. To many - including some inside the networks - the anchor system either has to reinvent itself or become an anachronism.

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"This is a 24-hour news environment," says Steve Capus, executive producer of NBC Nightly News, who notes that if we don't add something to the news, "we're doomed to extinction."

Others, however, say there will always be a place for the network newscast. They point out that the half-hour segments provide a Reader's Digest version of the day's events that are still more credible than those of the more polemical outlets of the moment. Moreover, they provide, as one analyst puts it, a sort of "civic gathering place" where people can be introduced to ideas they might not discover on their own. "Viewers like a Cliff Notes version of the day's events, delivered to them by a voice of authority," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Yet few doubt network news won't change - and in more ways than just shuffling the pleasant-looking faces behind the desks. Already, pressure is growing within some broadcast organizations to provide more meaning and context to the day's events - as Mr. Capus puts it, examining the story behind the news.

Others are expecting that anchors will be far more mobile. NBC's Brian Williams, the designated successor to Tom Brokaw, has said a journalist's worst enemy can be getting stuck in the New York-Washington cocoon. He wants to be on the road a lot. ABC's Peter Jennings, the last of the Big Three anchors, has already been showing up in a different city every week lately.

Decisions about the new anchors and the future of the evening news shows are being played out against the toughest media environment in the industry's history. Over the past 20 years, the network newscasts have steadily lost audiences to cable and the Internet.

At present, the big three newscasts collectively attract about 36 percent of the households watching TV in that time slot, estimates Nielsen Media Research. In 1990, their combined share was about 57 percent and in 1980 it was 72 percent. Even so, the half hour slots have shown remarkable durability. Facing hundreds of niche news channels, bloggers, and websites, they still deliver 25 million viewers each night, something Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Comedy Central's Jon Stewart have yet to do.

What direction the newscasts ultimately go, and how much credibility they will have, will depend in large part on who ends up sitting in the anchor desks (or, as is more the case these days, standing behind them). Dating back to the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, the direction and tone of the network news come mainly from the high-profile anchors.

As Brokaw and Rather prepare to pen books and research documentaries, questions are surfacing over whether the new anchors will carry the same authority as their predecessors. All three of the current network anchors paid their dues as hard-news reporters at home and abroad.

"Will he or she have the same clout?" asks media critic Ken Auletta. "If they don't, will that affect the news?" He notes that Rather is famous for having once stood up to Richard Nixon, among other presidents. "My guess," he says, "is that the successor will not have the same clout and pugnaciousness and willingness to walk into storms, figuratively and literally."

Yet if the new anchors won't be Walter Cronkite, neither will they be Jay Leno. Even though news has become more entertainment, most expect the network news divisions to continue to fight to maintain as much objectivity and respectability as they can.

Departing NBC anchor Brokaw says a powerful voice at the helm will always be important. "In an ideal world, we should all be in a perfect vacuum in which people can retrieve information from a pristine environment and make decisions on their own," he says. "But somebody still has choose what to put on the Internet, or how it's placed or displayed," says Brokaw, adding with a smile, "and the one enduring lesson of TV is that people do watch people."

Not everyone believes a network anchor is essential when credibility is a hot issue. "When you have Jon Stewart on the same level of credibility as the evening news, you have serious change in people's attitudes towards information and what we consider news," says Nancy Snow, communications professor at California State University at Fullerton.

The problem only gets worse as news shows put too much emphasis on a personality. It doesn't help, Ms. Snow says, when prominent figures such as Rather offer excuses rather than apologies for mistakes such as the recent use of allegedly forged documents in a "60 Minutes" story on President Bush's military record. "Nightly news used to offer something," she says. "They're fighting an uphill battle but credibility continues to be a big problem for all serious news shows."

TV historian Ed Robertson, for his part, doesn't think the nightly newcasts will disappear. But he says that "the anchor is not bigger than the institution."

Ultimately, it may be the next generation of viewers who will answer questions about the role of network anchors and how far the media have to go to restore viewer trust. "I don't care who sits there," says Jeremy Meyer, 29, a mortgage broker from Riverside, Calif. "I only believe half of what they say anyway and I take what I can use." While network executives might take heart from the fact that this young professional watches network news at all, his attitude towards a marquee anchor may be more sobering. "They're just a news anchor," he says. "Big deal."

Monitor staff writer Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.

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