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Anchors away

Big Three rethink newscasts amid changes in viewing habits

Merry Christmas, Peter Jennings.

Well, maybe. Even though the 66-year-old Jennings is the last anchor who hasn’t been weighed, this may turn out to be a disadvantage.

The other nets are not only rethinking and restructuring their hoary newscasts, they are also bringing forth younger talent who may give the ABC anchor a serious run for his money.

As a new generation takes over from the old and the networks take cues from cable, the newsman as Cronkite-like authority figure is starting to look like an endangered species.

The changes begin this week when BrianWilliams takes the baton from Tom Brokaw, 64, at NBC and ends when Dan Rather, 73, steps down from “CBS Evening News” in March.

CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward says the net has already narrowed its field of candidates to replace Rather and plans to use the decision-making process as an opportunity to weigh wholesale changes. The competitive landscape is more varied than ever before, ranging from Williams, who mimicks the traditional anchor’s style, to Fox News’ Shepard Smith, who talks like he’s telling a story to his bar-stool buddies.

“This gives us the opportunity to analyze what the best Evening News style is for this environment,” Heyward explains.

“If there’s a spectrum where you have a movie star on the one end and your neighbor on the other, we have to figure out where on that spectrum we belong,” he adds.

Mindful of these challenges, ABC has already gone on the offensive, touting Jennings’ gravitas in TV ads that began last summer, concentrating the broadcast more closely on the anchor, deploying him twice to Baghdad and on field reporting assignments across the U.S. during the elections.

Bolstered by a revived primetime lineup and Jennings’ relative experience, the Alphabet is clearly hoping their star newscaster will be the main beneficiary of the news-anchor shakeup.

“We’re relying on Jennings’ expertise more than in the past,” says John Banner, “ABC World News Tonight” executive producer, but cautions that ratings are fickle and move glacially, making even simple predictions a fool’s errand.

“Anyone who tells you that they know what’s going to happen is misinformed,” Banner says. “Ratings don’t work like that.”

The departures of Rather and Brokaw throw the race for network news dominance into disarray, but increasingly the competition becomes less about network vs. network and more about network vs. cable, media establishment vs. bloggers and every other electronic medium as the very culture that made evening newscasts dominant disintegrates.

The last time an anchor chair changed hands, CNN was in its infancy and remote controls weren’t sold with television sets. Today, upstart Fox News challenges the broadcast networks in ratings on certain news events such as the Republican National Convention.

The institution of the evening news, inherited from radio, is deteriorating as cable and other 24-hour news sources explode. Moreover, fewer Americans have traditional households and 9-to-5 jobs that allow the kind of appointment viewing that was a staple of the American family in the 1950s.

In the 1971-72 season, a full 75% of U.S. TV householdstuned in to a network news broadcast provided by one of the three networks. By the end of the 2003-04 season, that share had diminished to 36%, and viewers who retain the evening news habit, like the newspaper habit, are aging.

Total viewers are also on the wane, with 36.7 million in the 1991-92 season falling to an estimated 25.8 million currently, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Ironically, with the balkanization of audiences, even a diminished evening newscast looks pretty good to advertisers looking to sell laxatives and erectile dysfunction remedies. In a world of ever narrower niche channels. “CBS Evening News’ ” 10% share looks awfully good, and the networks are still a primary source of news for many people.

NBC anchor-to-be Williams addressed the idea of his increasingly anachronistic status at a recent luncheon: “You’re shoveling dirt on my not-yet buried casket.”

But of the three players in the competitive set, the future of the newscast that was once the crown jewel of the Tiffany Network is most in doubt.

The Eye’s evening newscast remains a distant third in the ratings.

When Rather took the anchor’s chair, he managed to hang on to the ratings lead for another eight years before losing it to Jennings in 1989.

Jennings ran with it until Brokaw took the lead for the Peacock in 1996 and kept it thanks in part to a string of breakout primetime entertainment successes — “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier.”

Rather will remain full-time as an investigative reporter for “60 Minutes” and other programs for CBS News, but he would no doubt prefer to be leaving the anchor chair under different circumstances.

His announcement last week came two months after the anchor admitted that documents used to source a story about President Bush’s National Guard service were probably fakes.

Network anchors measure their careers by the four-year presidential election cycle, but the “docugate” revelation and the subsequent apology seriously damaged Rather’s credibility. The latest election should have been his swan song, but instead it gave his critics all the ammunition they could ever want to discredit him.

Talks on Rather’s future began over the summer, before the scandal broke and after the anchor landed the Abu Ghraib prison scandal scoop.

CBS execs insist the timing of his announcement has nothing to do with the scandal, but the network will have a hard time naming a replacement as long as its investigation into the National Guard story persists.

Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told an interviewer on CNBC last week that the probe, led by former Associated Press topper Louis Boccardi and former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburg, should be complete in early December.

“Based on those conclusions, we’ll reach decisions as to responsibility and consequences,” Redstone said.

Meanwhile, unlike NBC, which had been publicly grooming Williams for more than a year to take over for Brokaw, there is no obvious heir apparent for Rather.

Chief White House reporter John Roberts, 48, is the frontrunner, and as chief White House correspondent, he comes minted with the pedigree usually associated with the anchor’s chair.

But CBS could just as easily go outside the company for a personality that could put a new shine on the tarnished network.

But it will be difficult to name a successor before responsibility and punishment for “docugate” is meted out. And CBS would certainly want to put the issue completely to rest before tainting any successor with the scandal.

But there could be another PR strategy behind the delay.

Some NBC execs privately regret the decision to announce the Brokaw departure and Williams appointment simultaneously, rather than building some suspense and giving the latter his own news day.

“This was Dan’s decision and Dan’s timing and we wanted to let that be an event in itself,” Heyward says.

On the day of the announcement, Rather seemed intent on keeping the sentimentality to a minimum, reading a short statement on the Evening News.

“After nearly a quarter of a century as the anchor of this broadcast,” he said, “I have decided it is time to move on. I will be leaving the ‘Evening News’ next March. I will not be leaving CBS, however. I will continue to report to you working full-time on both editions of ’60 Minutes’ and on other assignments for CBS News.”

Carrying on the cordial tradition of network news competition, Jennings included a gracious segment, intoning, “There are not many newsmen in America who have seen as much or traveled as widely in pursuit of a story.”

In an interview, Brokaw recalled a moment of solidarity between newsmen during their White House years when Rather stood up to Nixon in a televised news conference.

“Are you running for something?” Nixon asked. “No, Mr. President, are you?” Rather replied.

Brokaw followed Rather’s question, leading Rather to praise him quietly on the way out: “That was a great question, coach, a great question.”

Perhaps unfairly, a good bit of Rather’s legacy hinges on the investigation underway.

“It is sad to see the career of a newsman with so many high moments come to such an abrupt and disappointing end over one serious slip-up,” says Chris Hanson, associate professor of journalism at the University of Maryland.

As Rather, whose west Texas-bred one-liners are legendary, might say, the controversy is still “hotter than a Time’s Square Rolex.”

(Pamela McClintock and Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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