Walter Cronkite, That's the Way It Was

Rash Report: Mourning a Man -- and an Era

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MINNEAPOLIS (AdAge.com) -- Walter Cronkite's chronicling of three key stories personified his professional life. But a fourth key story has nearly led to his profession's death.

Walter Cronkite
Walter Cronkite
The most memorable was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. As always, Cronkite's journalism was rooted in reporting, but when he broke form and broke down -- even if just for a moment -- his silence said what words could not. The second also witnessed Walter take a brief break from reporting on the Vietnam war to opine about it, evaluating that it was unwinnable as it was currently being fought. Famously, this led to President Lyndon B. Johnson to turn off the set and say, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." The third, of course, was his intense interest in -- and unembarrassed and unabashed rooting for -- NASA and the space race with the Soviet Union.

The fourth story was Watergate. And although it may have been the last time journalism jumped in its esteem with American citizens, it accelerated an erosion of authority and respect in all aspects of civic life, as citizens became cynical about power in all forms. So while Cronkite won an Emmy for his Watergate coverage, journalism was swept up in the skepticism, particularly as a partisan divide widened over what was perceived as an increasingly liberal press corps. So, sure, Cronkite may have still been "the most trusted man in America," but the esteem of an anchor became unmoored along with so much of society in those turbulent times.

Cronkite signed off in 1981, just about the time technology made it possible to go from the Big Three to the big 30 (and now, for some, the big 300) channels available today. This makes it unlikely any anchor, even if possessing the professional and personal talents of a Cronkite, could ever preside over a network-of-record newscast like "The CBS Evening News" was during the '60s and '70s.

The continuous cable coverage of the passing of a broadcast legend must make younger viewers wonder what all the fuss is all about. At least that's the conclusion one could base on the Nielsen fast affiliate ratings from Sunday night, which saw a CBS tribute -- "That's The Way it Was: Remembering Walter Cronkite" -- only deliver a 1.0/4 rating and share in the ad-centric 18-to-49 demographic, which just beat NBC's knockoff of CBS's "60 Minutes," "Dateline" (.9/4), and lose to the timeslot winner, "America's Funniest Home Videos," which recorded a 1.3/5.

However in the broader measurement of household viewership, which better represents relatively older viewers, the Cronkite special won with a 4.8/10 household rating and share, 66% higher than "Funniest Videos" (2.9/6) and 50% higher than "Dateline" (3.2/7).

The loss to "America's Funniest Home Videos" served as a media metaphor of just how much has changed, as "Videos" incorporates a new genre, relatively new technology as well as stories shrinking on the small screen to small slices of life, compared to the historical scale often reported in Cronkite's work. As if to put an exclamation point on it, 80% more in the demo showed up to watch "Big Brother" (1.8/6) than Uncle Walter, who used to speak truth to powerful big brothers in totalitarian states worldwide.

Once final live-plus-same-day data are released tomorrow, they will most likely show it wasn't a generation gap, but a gulf, as even younger viewers probably propelled Fox to first in the demo with an overall 1.4/5, ahead of CBS's 1.3/4, NBC's 1.1/4, ABC's 1.0/3 and the CW's .4/1.

Rash chart July 20, 2009Click for PDF
See how all the shows did in the ratings.
It's particularly poignant that just as the news narrative shifted to the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing, Cronkite passed away. It would have been interesting, and invaluable, to get his perspective on the past.

And maybe he would have also weighed in on the future, given tonight's program premiere of "The Wanted," NBC's controversial combination of reporting and reality TV that tries to track down wanted war criminals.

True, in Cronkite's famous words, hunting war criminals in a form reminiscent of "To Catch a Predator" is just "the way it is." But is that the way it should be?

WHAT TO WATCH:
Monday: The Discovery Channel rediscovers its scientific roots with a look at the lunar landing in "When We Left Earth: 40th Anniversary Special."
Tuesday: Of course, PBS never strayed far from its educational mission, as evidenced by episodes of "Nova" and "Nova scienceNow."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR:
Relative reality TV ratings for new 10 p.m. series "Dating in the Dark," ABC's take on blind dating, and "The Wanted," NBC's take on a new journalism reality concept about chasing war criminals.

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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.

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