Why the Evening-News Anchor Is No Longer the Most Important Person on TV

Analysis: Even Walter Cronkite would not be as prominent in an era of smartphone alerts and breaking-news tweets

World News With Diane Sawyer

Hosting the evening newscast turned  Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw into luminaries and national statesmen. ABC News has now declared that the person who leads that national institution no longer has to be the most important face on the screen.

Sure, we expect to see David Muir, the hardworking correspondent who is set to succeed Diane Sawyer as the managing editor and anchor of ABC’s flagship “World News,” holding forth during times of great import. But ABC News made it clear Wednesday that viewers should largely expect to welcome George Stephanopoulos on the screen when disaster strikes, war breaks out, or the nation gathers in its living rooms to suss out matters of great import.

Stephanopoulos, who already sits at the head of two of ABC’s best-known newscasts – “Good Morning America” and “This Week” – is set to become “Chief Anchor” of ABC News. He will be the go-to guy “for major special events and breaking news at ABC, driving our live network coverage for the biggest stories.” said James Goldston, president of the news division, in a prepared statement. The former White House operative has anchored such mass-scaling events as the retirement of Pope Benedict and the manhunt for the Boston bomber (spending 11 hours on the air). ABC News’ new strategy is to look first to put Stephanopoulos in the chair when similar stuff erupts.

In a different era, such a division would be unthinkable. Muir, who will continue on with his “20/20” duties even as he helms “World News,” has been a constant presence on ABC, anchoring special reports when Stephanopoulos has not been available (Sawyer has not anchored a breaking report on ABC in some time, as anyone who monitors the network’s telecast can likely tell you). Had he won the evening-news chair just 10 or 15 years ago, Muir would not only have led the evening newscast, but all important coverage.

That tactic made more sense in a different decade, when the evening newscast was, along with something called a daily newspaper, a commanding source of the important news of the day. In this era of breaking tweets and smartphone alerts, however, the evening newscast has been weakened. A good chunk of people watch it, but another good chunk can’t even get home from work in time to tune it in. For whatever reason, the networks haven’t been able to find ways to distribute it smartly enough in time-delayed fashion to make it worth anyone’s while. Shouldn’t Diane Sawyer, Scott Pelley and Brian Williams be available on VOD within hours of their newscasts ending?

These days, the best-known on-air personalities must instead be freed up to pursue original reporting and scoops that the network can “own” and blast across all of its shows, as well as  digital properties. Consider “CBS Evening News” anchor Pelley’s recent trip to Jordan to cover refugees in Iraq and Syria – a story that is likely to garner more attention and secure broader interest than his daily recital of the day’s headlines on the flagship show. In a memo to staffers about the shake-up, Goldston took pains to look at the enterprise work done by both Muir and Sawyer. The importance of such efforts seems likely to increase.

Such reportage is becoming more significant for ABC’s rivals. Look at the lengths to which NBC recently went to promote Williams’ exclusive interview with whistleblower Edward Snowden. These stories can be trumpeted across digital and social media, teased on the morning show and given a full airing on the primetime newsmagazine.

More than anything else, ABC News’ decision illustrates strongly for one and all just how much power now resides at the network morning programs. These are the shows that get the broadest tune in, generate tons of ad cash and still serve an audience that relies on them for updates and info in those critical hours before setting out to work. NBC News didn’t launch a SiriusXM radio channel Wednesday devoted to its “Nightly News” after all, but rather “Today.”

Stephanopoulos will have his work cut out for him. The anchor will remain in place on both ABC’s Sunday public-affairs program “This Week,” as well as at “GMA,” where he is now the sole male anchor following the departures of Sam Champion and Josh Elliott. ABC likely could not remove him after so much recent churn at the show, but the recent promotion of Lara Spencer to co-anchor seems to carry even more meaning now. And so long as Robin Roberts holds forth on the show, Stephanopoulos is likely more free to leave his perch when news requires.

A day will soon come when unrest spills out overseas, a terrorist attack breaks out on home shores or the nation elects a president – and the leader of ABC’s flagship evening newscast will not anchor the proceedings. The next David Brinkley may well be found offering health tips on “GMA” or joshing with the crowd during the third hour of “Today.”