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Brian Williams’ Ex-Boss From NBC Has New Vision For ‘Evening News’ At CBS

Analysis: Can shoe-leather reporting from all corners of the world boost the fortunes of 'The CBS Evening News'? Steve Capus' new job “is to help us get up to number two, and on to number one," says anchor Scott Pelley

Steve Capus CBS Evening News

In an era when interactive devices seem to have reduced the attention span of most video consumers to that of a hummingbird on methamphetamine, the new executive producer of “The CBS Evening News” recently tried something counterintuitive: a story segment lasting more than five minutes.

The average length of a video piece on the venerable CBS evening newscast is just a minute and 45 seconds in length. On August 5th, however, the program aired a report that came in at four minutes and 45 seconds – a whopping 171% longer than usual – and then offered a conversation between the correspondent who presented the piece and anchor Scott Pelley. The report was harrowing, depicting the plight of young people afflicted with autism and other developmental disorders housed in a Canton, Mass., center who were given shock treatment that had been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The segment, which took up the entire second block of that night’s broadcast, “caught people’s attention,”says Steve Capus, who came on board as the newscast’s executive producer on July 7th. “We felt good about it. I think there are some other things in the works.”

At one time, Capus oversaw – among many other things – the nation’s most-watched evening newscast, NBC’s “Nightly News” with Brian Williams, as president of NBC News between 2005 and 2013. . Now he has come aboard CBS News as an executive editor, as well as the new overseer of the evening newscast.

His new mission? He wants to boost “Evening News” out of its third-place roost, without abandoning CBS’ old-school reliance on in-depth reporting, despite a competitor, ABC, that has made strides by featuring a faster-paced program. Part of Capus’ job “is to help us get up to number two, and on to number one,” says Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of the broadcast, in an interview held in his office in the “CBS Evening News” studio.

CBS has reason to position its broadcast aggressively as more serious than its rivals. In 2013, its “Evening News” took in about $149.9 million in advertising, according to Kantar, compared with $170.6 million for ABC’s “World News” and a little more than $200 million for NBC’s “Nightly News.” And as CBS gears up for what is expected to be an October launch of a new streaming-video news service for a range of devices, an “Evening News” that regularly offers scoops on important topics would prove to be of great utility in generating viral buzz and digital pass-along.

Capus joins the broadcast at an interesting time. ABC’s “World News” has a new anchor, David Muir, and has made inroads against NBC’s “Nightly News,” hosted by Brian Williams, in the audiences most coveted by advertisers, people between the ages of 25 and 54.

“Any time there is a transition there is an opportunity where perhaps people might sample and see what’s out there,” says Capus. “Right now, it’s up to all of us to make sure we have the strongest offering that we can. We are not going to do crazy stunts. We are not going to put Scott on the air without a tie hanging upside down in front of the monitor. We will stay true to who we are.”

For CBS News in recent years that has meant invoking the unit’s heritage as a place for “people who are serious about their world,” says Capus – this is the place where Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite held forth, after all – and extending it from “60 Minutes” to “CBS This Morning.”

Doing so has helped boost the program’s overall audience more than its rivals in the past few years, even though it trails them by a noticeable margin. Season to date as of August 31, “CBS Evening News” captured an average of 6.76 million viewers, according to Nielsen, a nearly 12% increase over the comparable time period in 2011 and 2012. In comparison, ABC’s “World News” saw its overall audience rise about 6% over that of 2012, to an average of 7.92 million. The total viewership of NBC’s “Evening News” rose 3.6%, to about 8.85 million.

Yet in advertiser-favored viewership of people between 25 and 54, only ABC has managed to eke out an increase. Season to date as of August 31, CBS captured an average of 1.66 million people between 25 and 54 , according to Nielsen, a dip of about 5.7% from what it captured in the same time period in 2011-2012. NBC’s audience in that demographic fell about 8% to an average of 2.17 million from what it had in 2011-2012. ABC’s rose about 4.1% to 2.05 million, Nielsen said. Viewership in 2012 was boosted by interest in the presidential election of that year, which tends to draw non-habitual viewers to the programs.

Still, the show has had its recent succeses. For the week ending August 22, “CBS Evening News” saw its 25-to-54 viewership rise 17%., and delivered its largest audience of the summer as well as its largest audience in the 25-to-54 demographic.

The evening newscasts do not draw the crowds they did decades ago, when more people were able to get home from work before the programs came on in the early evening and before an explosion in the way information is spread by digital media. Indeed, the collective audience for three broadcast-network newscasts dropped to less than 30 million in 2012, according to The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence In Journalism, compared with more than 50 million in 1980. Yet Pelley believes the newscasts have even more value, perhaps, than they did in past decades.

“We’re in a fascinating moment in human history,” says Pelley, surrounded by a collection of pictures in his office showing CBS News luminaries in interesting situations, such as Edward R. Murrow lighting a cigarette for Marilyn Monroe. “Never before has so much information been available to so many people. But the other side of that coin is never in human history has so much bad information been available to so many people,” thanks to new forms of digital and social media that allow for the instantaneous dissemination of information and opinion. Viewers need an institution that will tell them “if what they heard today was true,” says Pelley, one that offers “context, and a little bit more of an explanation of why things happened the way they did.”

Capus does not expect the evening newscast to alter its course, but he does see an opportunity to offer longer segments and more international news, and also tap resources from elsewhere in the division. “CBS This Morning” anchor Charlie Rose hosted one night of the evening newscast last week while Pelley was away, the result of a Capus request. “I think we have just kind of scratched the surface,” he says, in terms of linking “CBS Evening News” to other parts of the news division, which could include talent from local stations.

In Capus, CBS has an executive who knows what it takes to build a evening newscast that has broad appeal. He supervised Brian Williams’ “Nightly News,” but also the anchor’s experimental primetime broadcast that aired on MSNBC and CNBC in the late 90s. He also has experience with new forms of content distribution and helped NBCUniversal buy out Microsoft’s stake in NBC News’ online news ventures. He left NBCU in the wake of a shakeup of its news operations as part of Comcast’s reorganization of the company last year.

The battle to stay true to the values of CBS can be a tough one when so much breaking news about glitzier topics erupts daily, a fact illustrated during an editorial meeting held last Thursday afternoon. As Capus and Pelley filed in to meet with producers, news of Joan Rivers’ death was breaking, with monitors in the room streaming reports from CNN and others. Should the comedienne’s demise lead that evening’s broadcast?

Producers had to consider the issue carefully. The Rivers story seemed to be on everyone’s lips. Yet a lead story was already slated to come from correspondent Jim Axelrod about an issue CBS News had long been following the contamination of drugs prepared at a Framingham, Mass, facility that resulted in fungal infections and even cases of meningitis. An arrest had been made in the case, and CBS had interviews and footage from a “60 Minutes” exploration of the issue. In the end, Pelley would mention Rivers’ death up front, then pivot into the Axelrod report. A fuller segment on Rivers’ death would air later in the broadcast.

These debates, and more like them, are no doubt likely in the weeks ahead as CBS pushes for its evening news to take ground from rivals. “I don’t think any of us feel our work is done here,” Capus says.