The rocky exit of Scott Pelley from the “CBS Evening News” to a full-time role at “60 Minutes” is another sign that the era of the all-powerful network evening news anchor has passed.
Transitions in the evening news anchor chairs were once carefully choreographed processes that networks carefully mapped out years in advance. Brian Williams was anointed as the successor to Tom Brokaw two years before he took over the “NBC Nightly News” in 2004. David Muir was Diane Sawyer’s primary substitute for years before taking over for her at “ABC World News Tonight” in 2014.
By contrast, CBS announced Wednesday that Pelley is leaving the “CBS Evening News” to take on full-time duty at the network’s newsmagazine “60 Minutes” before his replacement was even selected. The network named veteran correspondent Anthony Mason as an interim anchor who will take over in July.
Pelley’s exit was not unexpected. His program has been mired in third place behind ABC and NBC in the ratings since he took over in June 2011 and there have been rumblings for months that executives at the network were looking at a change.
But the chaotic nature of the announcement was surprising and underscores the precarious position of broadcast news anchors. While still the nerve center of a TV news-gathering operation, evening news casts have taken a back seat to morning television programs in terms of priorities.And with so many choices on cable and the Internet, there is no one who can have the same kind of impact of a Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw — figures who were identifiable in every TV household when they were at the peak of their power.
All three evening news networks have seen a year-to-year decline in audience. In the May sweeps period measured by Nielsen, three network evening newscasts collectively reached an average of 21.3 million viewers a night, down 6% from a year earlier.
Notably, “CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley” was down more than its two competitors — 9% to 6.1 million viewers.
Pelley improved the ratings when he first took over for Katie Couric in June 2011. But CBS has been third in the evening news ratings race going back to the late 1990s, when Dan Rather was at the helm, despite the news division’s improved competitive position with “CBS This Morning” and “Face the Nation.”
The ratings at cable news networks Fox News, MSNBC and CNN have been surging throughout the year thanks to intense interest in President Trump’s White House, which is pulling viewers away from the broadcast networks.
Andrew Heyward, a researcher at the MIT Media lab and former CBS News president, said the evening programs are still influential because of the wide number of people they reach — no cable news program comes close to any of the three. But it may matter less to evening news viewers as to who sits at the anchor desk, unlike cable news, where partisan hosts such MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow or Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson have tribal followers who share their political views.
“Arguably, who the evening news anchor is not the make or break, do or die decision it was decades ago,” Heyward said.
Although Pelley was widely respected for the journalism he brought to “CBS Evening News” — he is a veteran war correspondent who has risked his life covering the Middle East for the network — he failed to deliver more than a modest improvement over his predecessor, Couric.
CBS News executives believed it had an opportunity to gain viewers from NBC when Williams departed over a scandal involving his Iraq war coverage, and the departure of Sawyer from “ABC World News.” Instead, Williams’ viewers stuck with his replacement, Lester Holt, and Sawyer’s fans with Muir.
Even without a permanent successor ready, CBS was planning on a smoother hand-off from Pelley to Mason.
According to people familiar with CBS’ plans who were not authorized to discuss them publicly, Pelley’s move to full-time status at “60 Minutes” was going to be made public next week. He has agreed on terms for a new contract. He is not leaving “CBS Evening News” until the end of June and will be on the program Monday.
Mason, a 30-year veteran of the network, was asked two weeks ago by CBS News President David Rhodes to serve as interim anchor in addition to his role as Saturday co-anchor of “CBS This Morning.”
Those plans went awry when Pelley apparently had movers show up at his “CBS Evening News” office at the news division’s headquarters in Manhattan on Tuesday to remove his belongings. As movers were walking out with boxes, stunned newsroom employees not aware of the plan told the New York Post what was happening, forcing CBS to announce the plan before it was ready.
Some CBS News longtimers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Pelley’s action reminded them of Rather, who once walked off his broadcast because it was delayed by U.S. Open Tennis coverage. Pelley, who prides himself on upholding the storied tradition of CBS News, admired Rather while working up the ranks at the network.
CBS News has a strong candidate to take over the “CBS Evening News” anchor chair in Norah O’Donnell, a seasoned anchor with a background of reporting in Washington, where she still has a home.
But O’Donnell is part of the co-anchor team of “CBS This Morning” with Gayle King and Charlie Rose, who have given the network a program that has respectability, better ratings and strong advertiser support. The ad revenue pie for network morning shows is about $1 billion a year, more than double the amount for evening news.
By becoming the interim anchor, Mason becomes a candidate for the permanent job, especially if ratings rise under his tenure. It happened in 2005 when veteran Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer replaced Rather, who was forced out over a flawed story he reported on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Under Schiffer’s watch, the program came close to second place. But instead of giving Schieffer the permanent job, the network had chosen to sign a new star who had become available — Katie Couric.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.
5 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional reaction to the Pelley announcement.
10:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from CBS.
This article was originally published at 8:35 a.m.