Scott Pelley’s appointment to the anchor-managing editor spot at “CBS Evening News” reps the most recent effort to shift the Eye’s nightly newscast from personality-driven storytelling to more segmented ensemble reporting, along a “60 Minutes” model. Pelley, who will replace Katie Couric as of June 6, is in his third decade at “60 Minutes.”
Move also marks one of the first major decisions for David Rhodes, the new topper tasked with boosting the news division’s ratings.
“Someone asked me today how we’re going to lift this broadcast up, and I said, ‘Easy — we’re all going to put a shoulder under it and lift together,’ ” said Pelley. “I’m keeping my entire team of producers and associate producers — they’re guys who worked with Mike Wallace and Ed Bradley, and they know what they’re doing. And the ‘Evening News’ team has been there for decades.”
Pelley, who said he wasn’t particularly looking for the anchor gig and was in fact “very, very content over at ’60 Minutes,’?” admitted that the deskbound aspect of the new job isn’t his favorite part. “There is a little bit of dread involved, I guess,” he said. “I’ll still be traveling a lot, though. The thing is to push our great producers and correspondents out there — to let these people shine.”
There’s been plenty of attention on the ratings for “Evening News” during Couric’s tenure. But even with the increased focus on her departure in the days leading up to the royal wedding, the newscast was a distant third in total viewers (5.74 million) and demos (1.69 million) behind NBC (8.86 million/2.78 million) and ABC (8.28 million/2.17 million) for the week of April 25.
Andrew Tyndall of news analysis site the Tyndall Report said CBS mismanaged Couric’s takeover of the program in 2006, as did the anchor herself. “She allowed herself to be treated as the single-handed savior of something that couldn’t be saved,” Tyndall said.
So what compelled Pelley to take on the new gig, with its difficult mandate?
“I had already decided that I was going to stay over at ’60 minutes’ until the mandatory retirement age of 95,” Pelley said. “But I would do anything for (CBS News chairman and ’60 Minutes’ exec producer) Jeff Fager. Every good thing that has happened to me and my family in the last 22 years has been because of Jeff Fager.”
Pelley and Fager go back a long way. Pelley worked for Fager as White House correspondent from 1997-99 when the latter was exec producing “Evening News” and continued to work under him at “60 Minutes II” beginning in 2000 and then at “60 Minutes” proper starting in 2003.
Tyndall said he has high hopes for Pelley. “The place where they’re going to find growth is not in the broadcast audience but in the digital audience,” he said, observing that CBS News has turned “60 Minutes” into an easy-to-Facebook digital presence. “The really aggressive correspondents — Lara Logan, Jake Tapper, Brian Ross — these are people who are household words,” Tyndall said. “Their own brands exist outside of the newscast.”
Rhodes, a news producer with a distinguished career at Fox News already under his belt, has been vocal within the division about amping up CBS’ daily reporting. In April, Rhodes sent “Early Show” staffers a much-blogged rebuke after a Monday edition of the program neglected to follow up several big stories from the weekend. “Where are these stories this morning? Not on ‘The Early Show,’?” Rhodes wrote in a terse email. “Why not?” he demanded. (The program’s reporters quickly followed up.)
The emphasis in the new order, clearly, is on reporting, not personality. Pelley, an experienced reporter who proudly proclaims that “this is the only news organization I’ve ever worked at,” seems to be a solid choice for a serious-minded broadcast, to say nothing of a morale boost for the division’s ranks of multi-year and -decade staffers.
“Scott has it all. He has the experience, the credibility, and he is among the very best reporters ever to work at CBS News,” said Fager in a release on Tuesday. “He has a body of work few in the business can claim,” added Rhodes.
Couric, too, had kind words for her successor.
“Scott is a great reporter and a real gentleman, who cares deeply about the news,” she said.
The task now is to translate those bona fides into ratings.