Dan Rather to Retire?
Dan Rather’s acknowledgment that he erred in broadcasting a recent “60 Minutes” report about President Bush’s National Guard service has further complicated two of the most delicate questions in television news: when will Mr. Rather relinquish the anchor chair of “The CBS Evening News,” and to whom?
CBS has never disclosed a timetable for replacing Mr. Rather, who turns 73 next month and who has been the anchor of the nightly news since March 1981. But in the weeks before Sept. 8, when the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes” broadcast its report based on documents it now says cannot be authenticated, officials atop the network and its news division had begun discussing a transition plan, a network executive said late last week. The options under consideration include having Mr. Rather step down sometime next spring, perhaps near the end of the prime-time season in May, giving his replacement the relatively low-profile summer months to find his or her bearings, said the executive, who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired at a time of turmoil at CBS News. But no date had been fixed.
Although the networks’ evening newscasts have seen their ratings and influence whittled away by the rise of 24-hour cable news channels and the availability of news on the Internet, the anchor chair remains one of the most prestigious posts in television journalism. The two most likely successors to Mr. Rather, at least as handicapped by the network’s rank-and-file correspondents and producers, have long been considered to be John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, and Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes.” Neither is considered to have strong name recognition among viewers, and the network has not ruled out looking beyond its own news division.
The question of what to do about Mr. Rather – whose broadcast has languished in third place, behind NBC and ABC, for nearly a decade – began to take on greater urgency in recent months, as NBC has prepared to pass the baton of its nightly newscast from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. That generational change, which NBC announced more than two years ago and which represents the first shuffling of network anchor chairs in two decades, will happen in December.
The installation of Mr. Williams, 45, a former White House correspondent perhaps best known for anchoring newscasts on NBC’s cable networks, is expected to touch off a period of anchor-shopping among viewers.
The audience for all three network newscasts has declined precipitously over the past decade, from an average of 36.3 million viewers between September 1993 and September 1994 to an average of 26.3 million during the same period in 2003 and 2004. But the broadcasts remain important to their respective networks – not only as marquee showcases for their news divisions but also as profit centers.
At 72, Mr. Rather is eight years older than his predecessor, Walter Cronkite, when he stepped down, and eight years older than Mr. Brokaw is now. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Pelley, by contrast, are both 47. But for all of the negative attention Mr. Rather draws as a lightning rod for conservative ire – especially evident in the last few weeks, as he backpedaled on a story damaging to a sitting Republican president – his most likely successors remain relatively unknown.
It has been years since I regularly watched the nightly news on the broadcast networks, even though it was a ritual I followed growing up. We watched CBS, anchored by Walter Chronkite, until his retirement and then switched over to ABC when Dan Rather took over because my dad
disliked Rather for various reasons.
It is somewhat ironic that the current anchor generation–Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings–all came in at about the same time in the early 1980s, all young guys replacing iconic figures who had gotten old by the standards of the day. Whoever succeeds Rather, whenever he finally goes, will certainly not have anything approaching the agenda setting power that Rather inherited from Chronkite. Indeed, I will be mildly surprised if the networks continue to maintain nightly newscasts 10-15 years from now. The local affiliates could almost certainly make more money running syndicated programs or even expanding their own newscasts to 60 minutes.