Marketing Job Watch May 04 2011

CBS Changes Anchor as Networks Struggle with Evening News

By sam schechner

Longtime CBS reporter Scott Pelley will become anchor of the network's nightly newscast on June 6, the latest shift as broadcasters wrestle with how to extend the lifespan of the graying evening-news format.

CBS Corp. said Tuesday that Pelley, who has been a "60 Minutes" correspondent since 2004, will be taking over from Katie Couric, who is ending a five-year run as anchor of "CBS Evening News."

Couric was brought in to reinvent the broadcast through more interviews and analysis but returned to a more traditional newscast after ratings took a hit. She is now looking to start a daytime program, according to people familiar with her plans.

CBS's move sets the stage for a new round of jockeying among networks over the dwindling evening-news audience -- and the ad dollars associated with it. But the battlefield has shifted. Rather than embracing sweeping changes, as CBS did initially with Couric, executives at all three networks are moving more incrementally to adapt to the digital era.

Now, the beleaguered CBS News division, which has long been a distant No. 3 both in its evening and morning news programs, is betting on Pelley to juice ratings by increasing CBS's existing bent toward hard news and politics.

Pelley is a product of that culture: a homegrown reporter who in his 21 years at CBS has served as a war and White House correspondent.

"We're going to be all about hard news," Pelley said in an interview. "There will be feature stories in the broadcast but not all that often."

CBS's evening shakeup comes as the evening-news format faces round-the-clock competition and an aging audience. A TV-news world that once moved to a nightly rhythm set by figures like Walter Cronkite has been fractured by the proliferation of cable channels and the rise of online outlets.

"The challenge is not that the evening newscast is getting beaten by some big alternative," said David Westin, former president of ABC News. "It's getting nibbled to death by ducks. It's entropy."

Large numbers of people still tune in to the big three. An average of 23.2 million people have watched the evening newscasts on NBC, ABC or CBS each evening this TV season through the end of April, according to Nielsen Co. But that audience is down 21% from this point a decade ago. At No. 3 CBS, the drop for that period was 33%. (The evening newscast on fast-growing Univision isn't included in this total because it is in Spanish. Fox Broadcasting, which like The Wall Street Journal and FINS.com are owned by News Corp., doesn't air a national evening newscast.)

The falling viewership translates to less money to gather news and produce a show. Since 2005, the average yearly advertising for the three evening news programs has dropped 9.1%, to a combined $438 million, according to research firm Kantar Media, with CBS alone seeing a 23% slide.

The situation has some outside analysts and former news executives speculating -- as some have for years -- that one maverick network may eventually ditch the format altogether.

Executives and producers at each of the big news divisions say they remain committed to their shows. But they are adapting their newscasts to accommodate an Internet age, in part by focusing more on exclusive content.

"News consumption has changed," said Steve Capus, president of NBC News, whose "NBC Nightly News" has ranked No. 1 in viewers for years.

In part, that comes down to picking different stories than your competition. Last week, for instance, NBC pulled "Nightly" anchor Brian Williams away from London's royal wedding to cover a deadly series of tornadoes in the U.S. and kept his departure secret so as not to tip off competitors.

Walt Disney Co.'s ABC, whose "ABC World News" is No. 2 in ratings, has focused on building its newscast around anchor Diane Sawyer, who emphasizes the human element of big stories, said Jon Banner, the show's executive producer. "The biggest distinction for us in the marketplace is Diane."

Too much experimentation can be dangerous. In Couric's early days at "CBS Evening News," CBS shook up the program's format, incorporating more interviews, commentary and personality. But ratings slipped, and CBS moved the program back to a more typical diet of stories.

While the program under Couric won journalism awards, she has also said she felt constrained by the short evening-news format.

That mismatch may have dented her brand. In 2003, after years at NBC's morning show "Today," approximately 86% of people said they liked Couric, according to surveys from E-Poll Market Research. By 2011, that number had slipped to 77%.

Already, CBS has had the most coverage of U.S. foreign policy, the economy and the midterm elections of the evening newscasts, says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which has monitored the newscasts since 1987.

But CBS executives say they plan to double down on that reputation, in part by pushing correspondents to focus on the latest developments whether or not they have footage to air.

"We all tend to package things too much in TV. It becomes a six-second sound bite and a piece of narration and another six second sound bite -- I hate that," said CBS News's new chairman, Jeff Fager. "I want the information. The production side of it is going to be secondary."

Sam Schechner is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where this story originally appeared. Write to him here.



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