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‘CBS Evening News’ Entering a Period of Experimentation

Times Staff Writer

In the wake of longtime anchor Dan Rather’s departure, the “CBS Evening News” is undergoing “a process of evolution,” CBS News President Andrew Heyward said Thursday as many station managers expressed eagerness for the network to lay out a permanent blueprint for the newscast.

Speaking at the network’s annual affiliate meeting here, Heyward said CBS would begin experimenting this summer with new elements to build on changes already made by interim anchor Bob Schieffer. Heyward said that Schieffer’s folksy give-and-take with the network’s correspondents offered a hint of what CBS would ultimately unveil.

“The strategy for reforming and revitalizing the evening news begins with a simple idea: The theme is team,” Heyward said. “We are showcasing a team of experienced, energetic journalists who present the world from multiple points of view, not a dominant anchor surrounded by a bunch of people you don’t know and don’t care about.”

The news president said the network would provide more details about this new incarnation before the fall season.

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That may not be soon enough for some station managers, who stress the importance of a strong network newscast in drawing viewers to local news programs. Of greatest concern, they say, is the uncertainty surrounding who will ultimately sit in the anchor’s chair. Until that decision is made, it is difficult to promote the network’s flagship news program.

“We’re all very anxious about having that situation settled,” said Rick Keilty, senior vice president of Dallas-based Belo Corp., which owns four CBS affiliates. “It sits in the middle of our news block in all of our television stations, and that’s a critical component.”

He and several other affiliate representatives said their local newscasts had lost viewers since September, when Rather delivered a controversial report on “60 Minutes Wednesday” alleging that President Bush received preferential treatment during his time in the Texas Air Guard.

CBS, owned by Viacom Inc., eventually determined that it could not authenticate the memos the report was based on. Rather, who apologized for the flawed reporting, left the anchor seat in March.

Network officials have expressed satisfaction with Schieffer’s stewardship of the newscast since then, saying he brings a much-needed dose of stability -- a sentiment echoed by many affiliate representatives this week.

Nevertheless, the “CBS Evening News” has been stuck in third place behind NBC and ABC. CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves has asked news executives to rethink the entire format of the program.

“The ‘CBS Evening News’ is obviously a work in progress at a time of challenge, change, opportunity,” Heyward said Thursday.

Some affiliate representatives said they were willing to give the network that time in the hope that CBS would hit on a formula to expand the evening news audience.

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“I think coming up with the right solution is more important than coming up with a quick decision -- something that is well thought out, that is very strategic and has a long-term vision,” said Regina Moon, general manager of KOTV, the CBS affiliate in Tulsa, Okla.

Several station managers noted that the recent turmoil over the “60 Minutes” story inadvertently provided the network with an opening to develop a more competitive program.

“I think it’s a real opportunity for CBS to do something differently to address today’s viewers,” said Jerry Bever, general manager of KTVA, the CBS affiliate in Anchorage. “If things were still going the same, they’d be more reluctant to try something new.”

The state of the evening news was the one note of uncertainty amid an otherwise exuberant two-day conference, as both network executives and affiliate leaders rejoiced at CBS’ recent successful climb in the ratings.

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After years of posting moribund returns in the key 18-to-49-year-old demographic, CBS placed second this year among those viewers, right on the heels of Fox.

While Moonves proudly touted the network’s gains, he acknowledged that “it was a challenging year for CBS News.”

“We are well past that now, and we are firmly pointed in the right direction,” Moonves told the affiliates Wednesday. “The division is reenergized and refocused, and we are determined to make sure it remains an important and enduring news organization.”

Earlier in the year, the CBS chairman said that the network was considering taking a break from the traditional one-anchor, “voice of God” format.

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Heyward echoed that notion Thursday. “The anchor or anchors of tomorrow need to get off the pedestal and out from behind the big desk,” he said. “People don’t want to be told what to think. Just tell them what happened.”


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