Scott Pelley could have spent his last stint behind the anchor desk on “The CBS Evening News” looking back. Instead, he chose to set his gaze forward.
Pelley, who succeeded Katie Couric in the role in 2011, spent little time talking to viewers about the decision to have him step down Friday evening as he delivered headlines about a collision involving a U.S. ship near Japan and introduced segments featuring correspondents like Nancy Cordes, David Martin, and Erin Moriarty. But the venerable evening newscast devoted a good chunk of its 20-plus on-air minutes to a report showing Pelley in Syria working on behalf of “60 Minutes,” where he will now be spending the bulk of his time. And Pelley tipped his cap to CBS News staffers around the world who supplied so much of the reportage that filled the program — and who would continue to contribute to the show after he was gone.
The venerable CBS Sunday newsmagazine will get Pelley’s sole focus in the months ahead, part of a decision by CBS News management to shake up the evening broadcast and set it on a new course. Pelley is leaving without a formal successor designated — a rarity in TV-news circles, where the evening news is still regarded as one of television’s signature elements, despite the steady erosion of viewership in recent decades. Anthony Mason will serve as an interim anchor of “CBS Evening News,” but CBS has not signaled who Pelley’s replacement might be.
The program’s ratings rose under Pelley’s tenure to their highest point in the last decade, but, ultimately, viewership remained behind that of its competitors, ABC’s “World News Tonight” with David Muir and NBC’s “NBC Nightly News” with Lester Holt. For the week ended June 5, for example, “CBS Evening News” lured an average of 1.19 million viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, the demographic most desired by advertisers in news programs. NBC’s “Nightly News” captured an average of 1.68 million, while ABC’s “World News” attracted an average of 1.647 million viewers.
“This is my last broadcast of ‘The CBS Evening News,'” Pelley said in the program’s final 90 seconds. “We hope this has been something of a lighthouse for you, to help you with your bearings in a stormy world. To the men and women of CBS News, my profound gratitude. Your nights away from your families, your 12-hour days, the days you risked your life to bring light into the world, leave me humbled. Our audience can and should take your work for granted, but I know the measure of your sacrifice. James Madison once wrote that freedom of the press is the right that guarantees all the others. The stakes are that high. You are the best we have. Monday, Anthony Mason will be here, backed by the same team that has carried me these six years. The broadcast will be better than ever and I’ll be at ’60 Minutes.'”
His last words to viewers: “Goodbye – and good luck.”
Pelley had time Friday to show off some of the writing skills that have brought him new attention since Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. On other nights, Pelley might raise eyebrows by uttering such statements as “It has been a busy day for presidential statements divorced from reality,” as he did in the wake of a Trump temper tantrum earlier this year. But on Friday, he also showed off deft word play: “Amazon bought Whole Foods for a price that should qualify for free shipping,” he quipped while introducing one of the day’s biggest business stories. “The tweet from the President this morning was more of a squawk,” he said, describing a Trump tweet-storm that raged earlier in the day.
Pelley, who got his start in the journalism business as a copy boy while a teenager for the Lubbock, Texas, Avalanche-Journal, is known for his devotion to enterprise reporting, particularly overseas. The “Evening News” gig has not been without its sacrifices. For a few years, as he worked to contribute pieces to “60 Minutes” while anchoring the newscast, Pelley gave up a favorite hobby: sailing. In his now-abandoned office suite at the “Evening News” studios in New York, Pelley sat in front of a giant blue-tinged painting of a sailboat, a piece of art commissioned by his wife, Jane. Pelley had picked up the pastime again as he found ways to balance his duties. After tonight’s broadcast, he may find a little more time for the ocean, whenever he’s not working on the “60 Minutes” clock.