Chung-Rather Team Losing the Ratings Battle : Television: Despite the numbers, CBS executives say the war for evening news dominance is far from over. But changes are planned.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four months after the highly publicized pairing of anchors Dan Rather and Connie Chung, the "CBS Evening News" has lost viewers while ABC and NBC have been gaining.

CBS executives say they are sticking with the anchor team but are taking a harder-news approach to the newscast and are making some cosmetic refinements to make the pair look more comfortable with each other.

From May 31, the week that Chung joined the newscast, through last Sunday, "CBS Evening News" averaged an 8.1 national rating, down 2% from the same period a year ago. ABC's "World News Tonight" averaged a 9.6, up 7%, and "NBC Nightly News" averaged an 8 rating, up 5%. (Each point represents 942,000 homes.) NBC, which was running third earlier this year, has been in second place for seven of the past 14 weeks and tied CBS in three of the other seven, including last week.

NBC also ranked No. 2 in news for the third quarter of the year (July, August, September)--and the network said it was the first time it has beaten CBS for a quarter since the Gulf War in 1991.

"The one major variable here is Rather and Chung," Sari deCesare, director of audience research at NBC, said in an interview. "NBC has moved into second place since the change occurred. The pairing of Rather and Chung has had a negative impact on the network's ratings."

CBS executives maintain that their audience research on the dual-anchor arrangement is positive, however, and they say it is too early to tell how well the Chung-Rather duo will do long-term.

"Any time you make a change in anchors, the first people you're going to lose are those who are watching and don't like the change," said David Poltrack, vice president in charge of research at CBS. "Our ratings have been stable since we made the change, and our audience research shows that the overwhelming majority of viewers like the combination of Rather and Chung. We have lost some 55-and-older viewers who may be put off by the faster pace and dynamics of having dual anchors, but we have made some gains among adults 35 to 54 years old. We think that any losses in audience are behind us, and we believe that this is the best long-term strategy for the newscast to do well."

In an interview, Erik Sorenson, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," acknowledged problems with implementing the dual-anchor format smoothly.

"It's worked out well in terms of allowing us to send Dan or Connie out on a major story," he said. "What isn't working as well so far is their interaction in the studio."

One of the difficulties, Sorenson said, is that Rather and Chung have not actually been together much. "With summer vacations and travel, they haven't been in the studio together more than one or two days a week," he said, noting that Rather has been to Bosnia, Tokyo, the Midwest and other locations while Chung has traveled more for her prime-time series, "Eye to Eye," which premiered June 17.

In the past two weeks, Rather and Chung have rehearsed together and have anchored together several nights a week in the studio. The camera angles were changed to make them appear more in sync, and changes are being made in their shared desk as well.

"If people sense any discomfort on camera, it has not been anything professional or personal between them," Sorenson said. "A lot of it has to do with the way they sit and the way we shoot them. They like each other, and they both want the dual-anchoring to work."

Chung and Rather declined to comment on CBS' ratings performance. Rather had said previously that he supported the dual-anchor arrangement, in part because it allowed him to travel to major stories.

Meanwhile, producers at "CBS Evening News" say they have been told over the past month to give hard news a greater emphasis. CBS Broadcast Group President Howard Stringer, a former president of the news division, is also said to have asked for a harder-news emphasis on the newscast's "Eye on America" feature.

In a speech last week in Miami at the convention of the Radio and TV News Directors Assn., Rather criticized the state of TV news, saying that the corporate owners have "got us putting more fuzz and wuzz on the air."

"I don't think Dan's speech was aimed at his own newscast, but he's always been an advocate of hard news and suspicious of any trend in local news coming to network news," Sorenson said. "I think we're all realizing that it's a good idea to take some steps to 'harden up' the news."

On one recent evening, for example, CBS' "money crunch" feature, which normally deals with consumer news, was a hard-news piece on the costs of President Clinton's health-care plan.

Sorenson said he believes CBS is committed to the Rather-Chung team. "This move was made for the long-term good of the newscast," he said.

An executive at a prominent CBS-affiliated station agreed. "So far (Rather and Chung) is neither a positive or a negative, although I worry that they're going to lose as many viewers are they gain," the executive said. "But CBS has made such a big deal about it that they've got to stick with it for a long while."

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