Eyeing ensemble cast

Moonves mulls 'Evening News' options

Leslie Moonves says he’s still far from making a call on who’s going to get the anchor’s chair when Dan Rather leaves in March.

But increasingly, it appears there’s going to be an ensemble cast.

Four months after Rather announced he would be leaving in the wake of the “Memogate” scandal, the Viacom co-prexy/co-COO heaped scorn on the “antiquated” one-anchor model.

The “voice-of-God” approach doesn’t work for the younger demo, which gets its news mostly from the cablers and the Internet, he says. Those viewers need a broadcast they can “relate to as opposed to that guy preaching from the mountaintop.”

Moonves likens the challenge at “Evening News” to that faced by “The Early Show” a few years ago. A distant third in the ratings, CBS decided not to take on “Today” and “Good Morning America” by putting two anchors behind a desk.

“We said, ‘If we put two people behind a desk like the other guys, we’re going to lose,'” Moonves says. “The other networks do that very well.”

So, instead of putting a one-man (or -woman) show up against Jennings or Brokaw, Moonves is leaning toward the “Early Show” approach, which is anchored by a tag-team including Moonves’ wife, Julie Chen, Harry Smith, Hannah Storm, Rene Syler and Dave Price.

Even though it’s still in third place, “Early Show” is posting its highest average viewership since the 1998-99 season. But what works in the mornings can look contrived and desperate at night.

Anchor duos have produced some of TV journalism’s finest moments, such as NBC’s Chet Huntley-David Brinkley partnership, which lasted more than a decade, and some of its biggest flops. Anyone remember NBC’s experiment with Tom Brokaw and Roger Mudd? Or the Eye’s own Connie Chung/Rather debacle?

Furthermore, it’s unclear whether any of those younger viewers CBS hopes to find are home at 6:30 p.m.

Moonves says while the new “Evening News” will take risks, changing timeslots isn’t one of them.

As in all of network television, the evening newscasts are franchises in decline, but like the Eye’s resurgent primetime, it doesn’t mean they can’t be revived.

“I think we can get younger and still keep the loyal CBS audience,” Moonves says. “We did it with primetime, and I think we can do the same with news.”