Will it be anchors away in 2004?

Although presidential politics and operations in Iraq will occupy center stage in news circles this year, suspense is percolating around another tale of regime change — namely, how the dominoes will fall as NBC prepares for its post-election baton pass from anchor Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams.

Nothing is more nebulous in television than what makes a news star, and the ferocity with which members of that privileged class hang on to their perches is all but unique within the media sector. Indeed, few other retirement-age luminaries wield such power and consistently buck the industry’s well-established pattern of ageism, beyond perhaps the moguls who ultimately pay their salaries.

Brokaw’s decision to set his departure well in advance has enabled NBC to plan for Williams’ ascension and simultaneously spurred inevitable second-guessing as to whether Williams is up to the task. At CBS, meanwhile, muttering has begun about Dan Rather’s future, while “60 Minutes” patriarch Don Hewitt’s decision to step aside in June has fueled speculation about an inevitable facelift for that venerable franchise.

Because the reigning trio of network anchors each have occupied their seat for two decades, all this rumbling amounts to a seismic shift, as if broadcast news’ Mount Rushmore is about to undergo an extreme makeover.

It also has prompted some to wonder if the preeminence associated with the anchor job is going the way of the dinosaur, sinking into the primordial soup of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the Internet.

San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman championed this theme last month, at the same time urging CBS to allow Rather a dignified exit on his own terms. “No one else, regardless of journalistic talent or camera-friendly good looks, will ever reach their status as arbiters of news or replicate their influence,” he said of Rather, Brokaw and Peter Jennings. “When these men leave, the anchor as icon is over.”

Of that, I’m not so sure. If the memory of Sept. 11 can still be accessed in the age of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jackson and Laci Peterson, the importance of a trusted, authoritative presence in such times seems unabated.

Thanks to the availability of instant, around-the-clock news and an expansion of options, the three evening newscasts are no longer the sole seats of power. In fact, I’ve long opined that “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel, more than anyone, is the closest thing to this generation’s Cronkite in terms of an utterly commanding news presence.

I’d also quibble with the notion that Rather should be immune to the rigorous analysis any employee must undergo, especially since his own coronation came after a high-stakes power play that hastened Walter Cronkite’s retirement.

In his memoir “Roone,” the late ABC News honcho Roone Arledge discussed at length his courtship of Rather, which ultimately prompted CBS both to bypass perceived heir apparent Roger Mudd and accelerate Cronkite’s departure by several months.

“As we inched toward Christmas, it dawned on me that, either way, we weren’t going to lose,” Arledge wrote. “If Rather signed with CBS, Roger Mudd was even more likely to leave. If Mudd stayed, it meant we’d have gotten Dan. Either way, the pressure would be on CBS to confront the biggest loss of all, the one they’d been dreading and ducking” — that is, Cronkite’s exit.

At 72, Rather is already several years older than Cronkite was when he gave up the anchor desk, and he presides over a third-place newscast. In that context, it’s hard to argue CBS owes Rather the job in perpetuity if network execs think the time has come for a change — a courtesy Rather’s representatives certainly didn’t extend to his predecessor.

The larger issue is who can fill those shoes, which is especially tricky given the amorphous qualities that define an anchor. It’s a peculiar mix of elements, after all, that make Rather’s folksy Texas homilies strangely endearing and Aaron Brown’s halting, finger-to-the-mouth hypotheticals on CNN merely strange and annoying.

That said, the idea that there are no worthy successors is patently absurd. Any number of current correspondents and anchors could step upward, from NBC’s John Seigenthaler to CBS’ Scott Pelley to ABC News’ Chris Bury, who has quietly done yeoman work on “Nightline” as Koppel has reduced his presence.

It’s also clear that those hardy few who take broadcast news seriously will still draw a dotted line between news and, say, the morning shows, where the anchors’ multifaceted roles frequently have more to do with profits than journalistic pedigrees. In other words, so long as Williams isn’t asked to interview Nicole Richie, or don an apron and yak it up with Emeril about shrimp Creole, he’ll be the guy called in whenever something dreadful happens.

Similarly, the biggest names in the cable spectrum increasingly fulfill a different function, placing the emphasis on opinion as opposed to reporting. Influential as such personalities are, as the equivalent of op-ed columnists they still require a reliable front page to provide the basis for their rantings.

Thus far, Williams is saying all the right things, telling USA Today a few months ago Brokaw is “a huge figure to replace” and, as for answering naysayers, all he can do is “show up every day and report the news.”

Fair enough, but news people had better get used to being the news until their drawn-out version of a primary process is completed. Because if history is any indication, once the next slate of stars gets situated, we’ll be stuck with them for quite a while — at the very least, until the Bush twins and Chelsea Clinton are old enough to run for president.

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