MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- The recent passing of broadcast-journalism giants Walter Cronkite and Don Hewitt has had many remembering the history of network news. It seems likely, however, that the two CBS News vets, who were present at the creation, would have wanted to report on its future, especially given today's news that "ABC World News Tonight" has named Diane Sawyer to take over for anchor Charlie Gibson this January. With "CBS Evening News" helmed by Katie Couric, for the first time two women will anchor network newscasts, leaving NBC's Brian Williams the sole anchorman.
Cronkite and Hewitt were astute observers not just of the news but of their own industry, and probably would have come to the conclusion that, while the headlines focus on gender, it's genre that really tells the story.
That's because both Couric and Sawyer are both broadcast journalists who have mastered the mix of hard and soft news featured on morning news programs, which the networks are increasingly look to not just as programming but also as a profit model. With 24/7 cable news networks and infinite internet websites, network news is facing the same journalistic juncture that newsmagazines are, as they are less and less Cronkite's "That's the way it is" and more a combination of hard news leavened with lighter lifestyle and health reporting.
This shift isn't reflective of either Couric's or Sawyer's reporting abilities: Sawyer showed her investigative chops during her time at "60 Minutes," the CBS newsmagazine invented by Hewitt. And Couric's interview of Sarah Palin was the most consequential interview of campaign 2008 precisely because of the journalist's perfection of the morning-news-couch chat technique, which revealed more than a Tim Russert "Meet the Press" grilling may ever have gotten.
Indeed, they're simply following in the footsteps of two opposite-gender anchors who jumped genres: Tom Brokaw, who went from NBC's "Today" to the "NBC Nightly News," and the anchor Sawyer is replacing, Charlie Gibson, who, like her, went from hosting "Good Morning America" to "World News Tonight."
Shrinking boys club
Despite rescuing her reputation, Couric didn't rescue her ratings, as the "CBS Evening News" continues to lag in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic. So far this season her newscast is still stuck in third place, with a 1.1/5 rating and share, compared with a 1.3/6 for "ABC World News Tonighta " and a 1.6/7 for "NBC Nightly News." And the gap isn't any better with women 18 to 49, as CBS still lags, with a 1.2/5, compared with ABC's 1.5/6 and NBC's 1.7/7.
However, as with almost all non-sports dayparts, the evening news has more aggregate rating points among women 18 to 49 than among their male counterparts, as men 18 to 49 index only a 77 compared with women for the three network newscasts.
|See how all the shows did in the ratings.|
So it shouldn't be surprising, given the number of talented female journalists and the disproportionate demographic skew, that the network-news boys' club is down to one. And it probably shouldn't be surprising that CBS has tried the morning-news anchor strategy in prime time as well -- only not for a newsmagazine but for a reality show. While journalistic critics may carp, viewers are watching "CBS Morning News" anchor Julie Chen in "Big Brother." Last night's episode was the most-watched in total viewers this summer and delivered a 2.6/7 rating and share among adults 18 to 49 to be the night's highest-rated show on CBS.
Still, with two "NCIS" repeats (1.7/6 and 1.6/5) bookending "Big Brother," the network could finish only third, with an overall 2.0/6. That's because two reality shows with even higher ratings, Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" (3.4/12) and NBC's "America's Got Talent" (3.2/9), powered their respective networks to a first-place tie at 2.6/8.
As for fourth-place ABC (1.1/3), it could have used Sawyer in prime time last night too. No, not in a Julie Chen-style role in reality series "Crash Course" (.8/3) or "Shaq Vs." (1.3/4) but back in her old role as anchor on "Primetime," the newsmagazine now named "Primetime: The Outsiders," which finished last in its time slot with a 1.2/3. Surely Sawyer, today's ultimate insider, could have helped that.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Wednesday: Critics were rightfully, well, gleeful over "Glee" when the Fox dramedy made its debut last spring. Missed the pilot? Fox reruns it at 9 p.m.
Thursday: Great actors have range. And in the range of three years, one of his generation's most underrated actors, Gene Wilder, starred in the 1971 family film "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (ABC Family) and 1974's more-adult humor hit "Young Frankenstein" (AMC). (Let's hope your DVR has range too, as they both start at 8 p.m.)
WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
"Glee" started strongly with an "Idol" lead-in. Will "So You Think You Can Dance," which will warm the time slot for "Idol" until January, give it a prime-time push as well?
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NOTE: All ratings based on adults 18-49. A share is a percentage of adults 18-49 who have their TV sets on at a given time. A rating is a percentage of all adults 18-49, whether or not their sets are turned on. For example, a 1.0 rating is 1% of the total U.S. adults 18-49 population with TVs. Ratings quoted in this column are based on live-plus-same-day unless otherwise noted. (Many ad deals have been negotiated on the basis of commercial-minute, live-plus-three-days viewing.)
John Rash is senior VP-director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis. For more, see rashreport.com.