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CBS’ ‘Evening News’ Transfer Is Chaotic, Not Calm

Evening-news anchors are, to some degree, like Boy Scouts. They are seen by the public as being courteous and kind, brave and clean. When workers began packing up anchor Scott Pelley’s office suite at the West 57th Street headquarters of “CBS Evening News” yesterday, it was viewed by CBS News staffers as something out of character.

Pelley had known for some period that CBS News executives were going to move him full time to “60 Minutes,” according to two people familiar with the matter. He has contributed up to 20 pieces per year to “60 Minutes,”  even as he anchored the network’s flagship evening newscast. But he had not been ordered to vacate his office, according to these people, and CBS had planned to make an official announcement about the transition next week, one of these people said.

Pelley’s decision to move out of the show he has led since taking it over from Katie Couric in 2011 has sparked confusion within the halls of CBS News. Some staffers feel the transition was handled poorly and was disrespectful of the veteran anchor. They view the surprise office clean-up as a means of pushing back against management, said one person familiar with the news unit. “My intent is to be in the seat as far as I can see into the future,” he told Variety in February when asked about speculation surrounding his evening-news tenure.

CBS News executives don’t share that view. “Scott brought the best values of ’60 Minutes’ to the ‘CBS Evening News,’ and we thank him for his commitment to the journalism of this broadcast every night these past six years,” said David Rhodes, president of CBS News, in a statement. “The milestone 50th season of ’60 Minutes’ requires Scott’s full contribution, and we look forward to important reporting from him for many years to come.”

Executives felt the network’s landmark newsmagazine would benefit from Pelley’s full focus. In recent months, the number of stories he has been able to contribute has dropped, and the show has not had as many full-time correspondents after Bob Simon passed away and Morley Safer retired. The network has also been mindful that ratings for “CBS Evening News” regularly lag behind those for NBC’s “NBC Nightly News,” and ABC’s “World News Tonight.” In the five-day period ending May 26, “Nightly News” won an average of nearly 7.8 million viewers, compared to more than 7.5 million for “World News” and around 6.2 million for CBS’ “Evening News.” Among the demographic most desired by advertisers, people between 25 and 54, NBC captured an average of 1.78 million, compared with ABC’s about 1.58 million and CBS’ nearly 1.3 million.

The situation is an unusual one.  The evening newscasts no longer attract the same number of viewers they did in the 1960s and 1970s, but they are an integral part of a broadcast network’s identity. Pelley is as much a part of the CBS brand as Stephen Colbert, “The Big Bang Theory” and Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. So when it’s time for a change, the networks often treat it as something akin to the hallowed passing of an Olympic torch.

There have been different kinds of transitions along the way. Bob Schieffer served as an interim anchor between March, 2005, and August, 2006, taking the “Evening News” reins after Dan Rather stepped down. Viewers knew his tenure was not expected to be as long as his predecessor’s. In 2015, Lester Holt worked as a substitute anchor for Brian Williams after the latter was suspended for making misleading statements about a 2003 helicopter trip. Holt was later awarded the job in full.

Pelley will return to anchor “CBS Evening News” on Monday, and Anthony Mason will take the chair at some point in a few weeks, according to one of the people familiar with the situation. Internally,  this person said, Mason is seen as a possible candidate for the job, as is Jeff Glor, who has served as a weekend anchor of “CBS Evening News.” The network is said to be at the very early stages of considering a successor.

The transition will take Pelley to a program where he has thrived, and done reporting that has won many awards. In fact, he’s doing some now. He is currently reporting from an overseas location that the network has not named, and can’t be reached easily for comment.

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