NEW YORK — It’s no wonder NBC just extended Tom Brokaw’s contract and Peter Jennings this month will sign a new long-term pact with ABC: The small handful of rising TV-news stars don’t want their jobs.
Instead, the heat at network news is on primetime newsmagazines — this fall, there will be a record 10 hours in primetime — which offer correspondents better ratings and more face time on camera.
It’s a paradox of the news business that even though viewers (especially younger ones) have abandoned the nightly newscasts, their anchors remain the network’s signature — and often best-paid — faces.
Brokaw last month joined the $7 million-a-year club in a new five-year deal with NBC News, matching salaries of his counterparts and top newsmag faces like Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. But neither primetime news diva aspires to replace Jennings — Walters in the 1970s endured an ill-fated anchor stint with Harry Reasoner — and there are few others with both the marquee value and willingness to step up to the anchor chairs.
“The problem is I don’t think there are enough broadcasters in America that people care about that much,” says Don Hewitt, who invented the newsmag genre with “60 Minutes” in 1968 but laments its effect on aspiring talent. “My feeling is they got out of the news business and went into the entertainment business,” he says. “It’s spawning a generation of personalities, not newspeople.”
“The bench is rather weak for talent to step in,” said a top TV news agent. “I don’t know a lot of people in this day and age who aspire to be the anchor of the nightly news.”
Top producers, too, have been migrating to primetime, where they can craft long narrative segments that are impossible in a 30-minute newscast. And news chiefs at all of the Big Three networks agree there’s been a seismic shift in how staffers (and viewers) perceive their product.
“The evening news is not the only big job somebody can aspire to,” says CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward. “Unfortunately, primetime is seen as more happening or more glamorous than newscasts. One of the issues for news management is preserving the strength of the evening news when you do have a migration of resources or a shifting of the spotlight to primetime.”
Part of the problem has been the steady defection of viewers in the habit of watching the nightly news: The Big Three command just half of all viewing households in the timeslot, down 50% from the late 1970s, when CNN didn’t exist and the Internet was the domain of geeky scientists.
There are no foreign wars to cover, and Americans have vastly greater access to hard news. Meanwhile, top newsmags are among the highest-rated primetime programs, and are far cheaper to produce than series — and thus far more profitable. It’s one reason why profits at NBC News will reach $145 million this year, more than doubling since 1990.
Things were far simpler 20 years ago, when the only national news programs on the air were the evening news, dry Sunday-morning public-affairs shows and “60 Minutes.”
Dan Rather’s reporting of the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and other stories made him a household name, but these days hard-news reporters find that “it’s very hard to get that recognition, and frankly it will get harder, simply because there are so many outlets for news,” says ABC News president David Westin.
Same old stars
Instead, the stars are Walters or Sawyer or Mike Wallace. Their would-be successors see more than just TelePrompTers and 1-1/2-minute stand-ups in their futures. Even Jennings has considered a standing offer from CBS to join its “60 Minutes” team, and Walters says that more and more, “evening newscasts are just like magazines,” with their mix of softer health-and-lifestyle features.
“Nightly news programs have become increasingly irrelevant,” says another top TV agent. “However, even in the face of that, Brokaw, Jennings and Rather are still treated as the biggest talent at the network.”
“I’m not the only face of this place, although traditionally that has come with the territory,” Brokaw admits. “It’s part of the reality” that the new generation of newspeople are more keen on primetime newsmags. But few, he adds, would turn down an offer to replace him.
“The view of many of my colleagues is that primetime is the ballgame,” agrees Brian Williams, the 38-year-old MSNBC anchor who alone has been acknowledged as an heir-apparent to the network throne. “I disagree, so I guess I’m a walking anachronism. I don’t like taking eight days to write a story and having it go through four rewrites. I like being the first person to tell people something.”
Though there remains a cadre of hard-news junkies committed to the dwindling nightly newscasts, the ranks of would-be anchors are largely depleted, or filled with people too unfamiliar, as Hewitt says, for what still remains a top perch.
When CBS hired Bryant Gumbel for $5 million a year, he immediately quashed speculation he was brought in to eventually replace Rather, whose contract is up in 1999. Instead, Gumbel, like many of his contemporaries, said he lusted only after his own newsmag and a lucrative syndication deal.
Even locals leery
Even local anchors in top markets, like WNBC’s Chuck Scarborough in New York or KNBC’s Paul Moyer in Los Angeles, can pull down as much as $2 million a year, and are loath to jump ship to a network, where they may wind up as a mere cog in an overall news operation.
Only after much cajoling did Lisa McRee of L.A.’s KABC agree to an offer from the Alphabet web’s “Good Morning America.” But that ayem news and chatshow has its own share of recruitment woes. ABC put off a search to replace co-anchor Charlie Gibson after it couldn’t lure a suitable candidate.
But the intense struggle between ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “NBC Nightly News” for the top spot shows just how important each remains, image-wise.
“Our evening newscast remains the engine that drives the news division,” Westin says. “Our reputation hinges on it.”