Scott Pelley had been saying for weeks that his “CBS Evening News” broadcast was going to be all about hard news. Then just hours before Pelley made his debut in the anchor chair on June 6, Rep. Anthony Weiner held an overly dramatic press conference addressing his Twitter-pictures scandal.
Pelley stuck to his word and led with a report from correspondent Mandy Clark, who’s embedded with troops in Afghanistan, and he didn’t even bother to mention Weiner until after the first commercial break.
By delaying the story everyone was buzzing about, Pelley and CBS were trying to re-establish themselves as a hard news brand. But can this less tabloid-like approach click with viewers in an era when people are looking to places like TMZ for their news fix?
“This has been a long-running struggle, whether to have the evening news succumb almost entirely to entertainment values and see it as an extension of entertainment,” observes former CBS anchor Dan Rather. “I hope CBS and Scott Pelley will move the ratings needle forward. But it will take patience, and it does take the corporate side understanding and being totally committed to it.”
In choosing longtime “60 Minutes” correspondent Pelley to succeed former anchor Katie Couric, CBS is banking on substance to bring its nightly newscast out of third place. Ads promoting the new anchor ask: “What if you can have the world-class original reporting of ’60 Minutes’ every weeknight? Well, now you can.”
“It’s nuts to try and go up against shows like ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and ‘TMZ,’ ” says Marty Kaplan, research professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “I guess the real question is, of the people who watch the network news shows, what do they have an appetite for?”
Former CBS News president Andrew Heyward thinks the emphasis on serious news is a smart strategy.
“I think what CBS is really pushing is something that does have value: original reporting on matters of substance,” says Heyward, now managing partner of digital strategy consultants MarketspaceNext. “I think that’s what the promotion campaign is really based on,” adds Heyward, who sees the focus as valuable in the age of TMZ “because it’s hard to do.”
Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report has monitored network television news since 1987, agrees that the marketing strategy could appeal to viewers looking for serious news at dinnertime.
“We’ll see if they deliver it or not,” he says. “What CBS has discovered at ’60 Minutes’ is that the more enterprise and exclusivity you get, the better chance you have of your reporting having a life after the broadcast, of video being shared virally and ending up in people’s in boxes and being topics of buzz. That’s what current newscasts fail to do.”
Although overall viewership for the evening newscasts is down by 21% from a decade ago, as of the end of April, there is still an average of 23.2 million people tuning in to them, according to Nielsen Co.
“The death of broadcast network anchor news program is exaggerated,” says Kaplan. “More people go to the bathroom during those shows than watch all the cable news put together.”
Tyndall says the online afterlife for stories is becoming just as much a measure of success as actual ratings. “There certainly is an appetite for this kind of thing. It works for comedy with ‘Saturday Night Live’ and Jon Stewart. Can it work for news?”
With an average of 6 million viewers each weeknight, “CBS Evening News” has long trailed NBC and ABC despite the continued success of its Sunday night newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” to which Pelley will continue contribute.
Also gearing up for double duty is “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, who will headline a new primetime newsmagazine the network hopes to get on air by the fall. It will not be a part of the sometimes more sensational “Dateline” franchise.
“Hats off to NBC for taking on that challenge,” says Heyward. “Now the issue will be, ‘How do you create something that is worth people’s time?’ In primetime, you are competing not only against entertainment programming but also entertainment programming on DVR” and in time periods not normally receptive to news.
Rather, who for many years juggled the nightly broadcast with hosting the newsmagazine “48 Hours,” says the challenge for Pelley and Williams is to not spread themselves too thin.
“The evening news is fulltime work plus,” says Rather, now anchor and managing editor of “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet. “(Williams) and Pelley now have two-and-a-half fulltime jobs.”
The Williams primetime program does not yet have a name or a start date, but Rather thinks it can succeed with a serious news bent if NBC stays committed to it the way CBS did to “60 Minutes,” which wasn’t a ratings hit until its seventh season on air.
“It’s very important to leave it in place, don’t move it around the schedule,” Rather says. “Provided they make it a hard news broadcast and not trying to make it entertainment, they will develop a solid audience. This move could turn out to be brilliant for them.”
CBS or NBC would comment on their marketing efforts for the news broadcasts.