TV Analysis: After Barbara Walters, Who Will Stir the TV-News Biz?

From Anderson to Zucker, here are a few names worth watching

Barbara Walters Retires: Who Will Take Her Place?

By the end of May 2014, the cultural behemoth known as “TV News” will no longer include Barbara Walters, arguably its best known link to the medium’s earliest days. When she goes, so too will the most obvious reminder of what the news biz once was.

Yes, Dan Rather is out there hosting his show on AXS, and Tom Brokaw shows up occasionally on the sundry news networks of NBCUniversal, but it’s Walters – never mind her perch at “The View” or those kooky celebrity interviews – who started as a “Today Girl” just as NBC’s flagship morning show entered its second decade on the air and has a tie to the time when TV news had its greatest authority, credibility and integrity.

Let’s be honest: Those days are gone.

Today’s news moves much more quickly and has much less room for the reportage that grounds stories in facts. Indeed, across the three big cable-news outlets, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, “coverage of live events during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%.”  In this rapid-fire era of some of the biggest news nuggets surfacing on Twitter before they do anywhere else, TV news is often shoot first, aim later, and the quick pace of a dozen buzzing voices yammering hugger-mugger around a topic turns even the most serious debate into something you might see on ESPN.

You can argue that NBC’s Brian Williams – he of the leading nightly newscast – is today’s TV-news exemplar, but his ubiquity on everything from “Saturday Night Live” to “30 Rock” sometimes casts him more as an authority on the antics of the character his daughter plays on HBO’s “Girls” than on the European financial crisis. At ABC, Diane Sawyer is a model of trustworthiness, given her tenure on “60 Minutes” and “Good Morning America,” but at her age, her TV tenure is likely closer to its finale than its debut.

So what new forces are emerging in the news kitchen as the medium’s “first” generation fades from the airwaves? They are working in a trickier time. According to Pew,  “the combined viewership for the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts dropped 2%, to 22.1 million” in 2012, while at the three biggest cable-news outlets, “audience figures started to show signs of languishing.”

Below, a few rather speculative thoughts about a small handful of leaders and people who might bear watching in the days and weeks to come:

Behind The Screen

Jeff Zucker: The former chief exec of NBC Universal has already started putting his mark on CNN, the outlet that often seems to represent vanilla in the three-flavor Neapolitan that is cable-news today. A bevy of ABC News personnel have arrived at the network in an effort to boost its overall relevance. A new Chris Cuomo-led morning show and a Jake Tapper afternoon program are likely the first part of a larger shake-up of CNN’s air. But CNN could arguably use a single face, someone with the gravitas to cover a terrorist attack on U.S. soil but who can also leap on whatever flotsam and jetsam are cresting on social networks. That would bolster the notion that CNN is the place people turn to when an explosive news event comes to the fore. One could argue the network hasn’t had that sort of person on board since the days of Bernard Shaw or Aaron Brown.

Alexandra Wallace: When reports surfaced earlier this week that NBC had made an overture to Anderson Cooper about replacing Matt Lauer on “Today”, it was Wallace, the senior NBC News executive who oversees “Today,” who came out to defend the show’s current host – not Patricia Fili-Krushel, the executive put in place to oversee all of NBC Universal’s news operations, or NBCU CEO Steve Burke. Executives in rival newsrooms see bigger things ahead for Wallace, who must now steer “Today” out of its hot-seat and find a way to triumph over ABC’s “Good Morning America.” After all, these executives note, the top seat at NBC News itself (which reports to Fili-Krushel) has not been filled since Steve Capus departed earlier this year

 Behind The Desk

Willie Geist: Plucked from an early-morning roost on MSNBC , he now fills a seat on “Today” during its 9 a.m. hour. His “Morning Joe” tenure gives him an ease when discussing the issues of the day but his personality tends toward the light-hearted. Does NBC see a greater role for him in the morning going forward?

Anderson Cooper: With his own show on CNN, a contributing role at “60 Minutes” and a call from NBC Universal about hosting “Today,” it’s clear this affable anchor has bigger things in his future – if he wants them.

Chris Hayes: After working substitute anchor and weekend roles, he joins MSNBC’s weeknight lineup starting April 1. On a network packed with anchors who use a lot of hand-wringing and tut-tut-tuts to get their points across, Hayes has relied on intelligent discussion and, well, an air of calm. Does that work in MSNBC’s primetime?