Veteran CBS newsman Scott Pelley will replace Katie Couric on the evening newscast beginning June 6. This could be a deliberate backwards nod to Ms. Couric’s predecessor – he even hails from Dan Rather’s home state of Texas – or a statement about the future of the evening newscast itself.
Either way, Scott Pelley is the “little black dress of TV reporters,” says Jason Maloni, chair of Levick Strategic Communication’s Sport & Entertainment practice.
“He is as safe a choice as you could make,” he says – not as criticism, but as a statement about Mr. Pelley’s solid grounding in traditional reporting values, he adds. “Couric was a celebrity and CBS clearly hoped that would bring new viewers to the evening broadcast,” says Mr. Maloni. “That didn’t work out, so they are going back to the more conventional choice.”
Former CBS Moscow bureau chief Beth Knobel, who now teaches journalism at New York’s Fordham University, says Pelley is more than merely a safe choice. “He is an exceptional journalist and an exceptional person,” she says.
Co-author – with Mike Wallace – of "Heat & Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists," Ms. Knobel says, “When I asked [Mr. Wallace] who we should interview for the book, he said Scott Pelley was the finest journalist in the business.”
Some of the best advice in the book came from Pelley, Knobel adds. “A lot of journalists are haphazard in their approach to stories,” she says, but “Scott has an incredibly specific set of criteria for what he wants in a story. It should be important or meaningful, expose injustice, involve human struggle, be about people, and bring honor to CBS.”
What does this mean for the evening news?
This move sends a message that the half-hour evening broadcast TV newscasts – for the near future, at least – still have a role in the ongoing media mix, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
The news is less about who is in that anchor chair and more about the actual content, says Professor Thompson. “People want a wrap-up, and even headline news on cable doesn’t give it to you anymore,” he says.
“Even if you have been online all day,” he says, “that visual cliff notes form is still a useful thing that you don’t get in cable or on the Internet.”
Despite the undeniable evolution of media into ever-more interactivity, Thompson notes, the very passivity of the evening newscast has its own appeal. “There are no links to push to get that condensed report,” he says. “You simply turn it on and it gives you the quick version of the news you want. There is real value to that.”
Look out, Bryan Williams
CBS is positioning itself for the long term, suggests Jeff McCall, media professor at DePauw University. The CBS Evening News has a long road back to respectability and ratings success, after being mired in third place for so long behind both NBC and ABC, he says.
“Brian Williams at NBC has a solid lead. Diane Sawyer at ABC has not been spectacular, but has held up OK,” Professor McCall says via email. If CBS is patient, he predicts, Pelley will make them competitive again.
“CBS will have a great opportunity for a ratings jump when Sawyer retires. Sawyer is already well into her sixties. Pelley can get himself established at the anchor desk now while expectations are low. He can then grow his audience over time, particularly when Sawyer steps down and her audience goes browsing,” he adds.