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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 / November 26, 2004


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.

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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.

"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.