Brian Williams’ departure from “NBC Nightly News” draws a curtain on an era of almighty evening news anchors.
The legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite defined the network anchor in the 1960s and ‘70s as a trusted, calm paternal figure providing a steady presence during turbulent times. Williams, 55, idolized Cronkite and developed his own strong persona that was reminiscent of the days when the news divisions of the Big Three networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – dominated the media landscape before cable and the Internet arrived.
Now that Williams is leaving the broadcast to a new role anchoring breaking news at MSNBC, there are no evening news anchors with $10-million-plus salaries or the kind of big personalities that make viewers refer to them on a first-name basis. Williams’ association with “NBC Nightly News” was so strong, NBC News President Deborah Turness once said that in research studies, viewers used the word “he” when talking about the broadcast.
But the aftermath to Williams’ suspension on Feb. 11, imposed by the network because of false statements he made about his reporting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, indicates that viewers don’t necessarily need a high-priced star in the evening news anchor chair.
The ratings for Lester Holt’s tenure have been on the same track as the performance with Williams in the chair. Before Williams’ suspension, “NBC Nightly News” ratings were down 7% for the 2014-15 TV season among the 25-to-54 age group that advertisers want to reach with news programs. Since Holt took over, the year-to-year decline in that demographic has been about the same. The broadcast remains competitive in overall audience, finishing first in five of the last seven weeks.
Much of that has to do with habit and the familiarity with Holt – a steady presence on NBC News since 2000 – and the network’s stable of veteran correspondents such as Andrea Mitchell, Richard Engel and Pete Williams.
“That’s the family that the viewers know,” said one former NBC News producer who asked not to be identified by name. “Maybe you don’t have the same guy at the head of the table carving the turkey at Thanksgiving. But all of the brothers, sisters, cousins and uncles are there.”
There is evidence that viewers were already seeing the network evening newscasts that way.
“All of the evening news anchors have been diminished just because of the competition of everywhere else, all the other places where we can go,” said another veteran TV news executive who has worked closely with network talent. “I don’t think the next generations are looking up to those guys. Morning shows, for whatever they’re worth, seem to be the place where the broadcast networks are more powerful.”
ABC has already taken that stand. When Diane Sawyer was in the anchor chair at “ABC World News Tonight,” many people in the industry pegged George Stephanopoulos as her likely successor. After Sawyer, Stephanopoulos was seen as having the most gravitas of anyone in the network’s news division.
But Stephanopoulos was part of the top-rated team at “Good Morning America,” the program that accounts for most of the profit at ABC News.
Keeping that winning morning team intact was a priority at ABC News. Stephanopoulos wanted the role that came with the evening news job – being the face of the network during breaking coverage and special events such as election nights. He got it – along with the never-before-bestowed title of “chief anchor” – as part of his last contract negotiation. The “ABC World News Tonight” anchor chair went to David Muir, who agreed to having Stephanopoulos take on the duties that traditionally would have been his.
“That would have been inconceivable in the days of Peter Jennings,” said former ABC News President David Westin, citing that network’s longtime anchor who died in 2005.
CBS already learned that a flashy, high-priced name is not all that important to evening news viewers when it enticed Katie Couric to leave NBC and “Today” to become the first woman to be solo anchor of the “CBS Evening News” back in 2006. While the program won many awards for its journalism under Couric’s tenure, it lagged well behind the NBC and ABC programs in ratings.
When Couric decided to leave, the network followed her with the more low-key Scott Pelley, a figure familiar to the CBS audience because of his many years of work as a correspondent on “60 Minutes.” Pelley is so intent on playing down the personality aspect of the anchor role, he had to be talked out of taking his name off the title of the evening news broadcast. The CBS broadcast has added more than 1 million viewers since he took over.