Dan Rather celebrated his 20th year in the anchor's chair last month and, within days, the usual rumors were flying about a possible replacement.
Tim Russert? Diane Sawyer? Nobody? (That's the choice of respondents on one Internet survey, who apparently prefer an empty desk to another guy in a power suit.)
Mr. Rather, of course, is showing no sign of hanging up his suspenders. Yet the milestone he has reached, and the seniority of the other two major network anchors, is increasingly raising questions about the future of American television news - and how radically it might change in the near future.
Since the days of father-figure Walter Cronkite a quarter-century ago, the nightly news has evolved into a kind of star system in which viewers choose broadcasts as much for the anchors as for the
programs. Now, with ratings dwindling, the economics of TV changing, and all three anchors hitting their 20-year mark between now and 2003, many see the era of network news drawing to a close. "It's not a question of who succeeds them, but what becomes of those programs," says Garrick Utley, a veteran journalist and anchor for NBC and ABC, and now a contributor at CNN.
In the future, say some, nightly news could look more like a newsmagazine, or it could become a program that pools the resources of all three networks.
Others envision a time when there is no network news at all - either because networks get shut out of the medium as they did when radio expanded, or because local affiliates will start to do their own national news gathering.
"Two very high-up guys in networking, and not at CBS, told me they think this institution is going to die when a major market decides to break this tradition" and covers local and national news themselves, says Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS's "60 Minutes." It's how newspapers already do it - combining local and national coverage. Nightly news "is a way of life that maybe belongs to another era," he adds.
Certainly, the eventual changing of the anchors will cause networks to think more about what comes next. Called "brands," in new-media lingo, anchors are one of the few things keeping viewers from defecting entirely to cable or the Internet, analysts say.
Some 8 million to 10 million people tune in to one of the three newscasts each night - about half the number who watch hit shows like "Survivor" and "ER." But ratings have fallen in recent years as competition has increased, the audience has aged, and the "heard it here first" element has faded.
At one point, watching the nightly news was almost a civic duty. The Pew Research Center reports that 60 percent of Americans watched the evening broadcasts in 1993. Today, only 30 percent tune in, according to a June 2000 study that measured the impact of the Internet on broadcast news (see chart). That gap could widen even more as online video improves, and people can watch the stories they want anytime they want.
Genesis of the anchor
Nightly televised newscasts were introduced in 1948, when journalists had 15 minutes to read the day's headlines. It wasn't until 1963 that the broadcasts were expanded to 30 minutes and nervous executives wondered if they could fill the time.
Mr. Hewitt, author of "Tell Me a Story: Fifty Years and 60 Minutes in Television," says he coined the word "anchor" during CBS's coverage of a political convention in the 1950s. The network used several broadcasters to report the event, and, as in a relay race, it had Mr. Cronkite be the principal, or anchor. (He went on to solo for CBS News.)
Today, to compete against the instant news of CNN and the Internet, the newscasts have gone to softer reporting - spending more time on consumer issues and context and less on what media types call "hard" news.
Paul Slavin, executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight," says the news has changed because the world has changed. "It's a different time," he says. The question is no longer, "'Are the Russians coming to get us?' It's 'Is my privacy protected on Internet?' Is that a soft feature? I don't think so."
The shift to softer news could be a precursor to what some say is next for the nightly news: the newsmagazine format. The programs already spend more time than they used to plugging what's on shows like "60 Minutes" and "Today," and they frequently share resources and reporters with their news siblings.
The softer approach has helped NBC hit the top spot with its broadcast, even if it irks some viewers, including Cronkite, who prefers only news. NBC has also created a unified front across its news, cable, and Internet outlets, which could protect its news division from extinction.
For ABC's Peter Jennings, the idea that the news could disappear seems remote, despite the cost-cutting at networks now owned by large corporations.
"I think - and this may be wishful thinking - that it would be very difficult for a major company like Disney or Westinghouse or GE to suddenly say they didn't care any longer about having the responsibility of producing a major newscast every day," he says. "It's a pretty big audience of people who rely in some way, shape, or form on getting their news from one of the networks."
Indeed, as dominant as cable is, some 30 percent of Americans still don't have it. But many say something needs to be done about how homogeneous the network programs are - at a cost of millions of dollars per network. (Anchor salaries alone run $7 million to $9 million apiece, according to media magazine Brill's Content.)
Mr. Utley says he doesn't expect the networks to just give that half hour up to local news. "I would see the show evolving into something else" - perhaps aimed at attracting younger viewers.
Some in the industry suggest moving the nightly news to a later time, which would accommodate many Americans not home at 6:30 p.m.
Others, like Lawrence Grossman, former head of NBC News, suggest the networks could air newsmagazines like "60 Minutes" and "Dateline" every night, and then reserve 20 minutes for the nightly news in the format.
But Rick Kaplan, a former CNN and ABC executive, says prime-time newscasts would also be problematic. In a later slot, they'd have to "perform at audience levels like prime time."
TV version of AP
Mr. Hewitt has another idea. In his book, he suggests that the same way networks use a pool to cover the White House - rotating the responsibilities for reporting - they could have a single newscast that would run on all the networks each evening. The anchors could rotate being the "presenter" and doing on-the-spot reporting.
Or at least, he says, the networks could have an approach like The Associated Press, only call it Associated Television, and pool reporters for stories at home and abroad, where networks have closed bureaus in the last decade.
He pooh-poohs purists who think that such an approach would reduce competition. "What you're doing is providing a better service and competing in some way other than at the public's expense," he says, arguing that networks would still be able to put a unique stamp on the news with talk shows like "Meet the Press" or "Face the Nation."
As for the anchors, Hewitt and others guess it will be awhile before they step down. "Do you really think they're ready to go off and fish? These guys don't look tired and ready to hang it up to me," says Mr. Kaplan.
Mr. Jennings, for one, says he thinks about the world after anchoring, at times. He says there are more frustrations now than there were 15 years ago, including budget constraints. "I don't think anybody ever does these jobs," he says "without thinking about what else there is in life."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor