The Anchor’s Job, In Minute Detail

As Katie Couric prepares for her new career, it’s time to ask: What are the on-air duties of an evening-news anchor?

We checked the averages for 2005’s weekday newscasts and divided the workload into four categories.

1: The 20-second intro: The half-hour network nightly newscast contains an average of seven taped news packages. That’s almost 85% of the news hole. On average, each package is assigned about 140 seconds of airtime: two minutes for the correspondent and 20 seconds or so for the anchor. So each night, an anchor spends a grand total of 140 seconds introducing reports from the field.

2. The anchor’s briefs: These are short voiceovers and read-only items that warrant a passing mention but no reporter. An average newscast contains seven of these items: four voiceovers and three read-onlys. The former are slightly longer on average (30 seconds versus 20), but they occasionally contain soundbites. On average, these briefs account for 140 seconds of the anchor’s workday.

3. Hello! Don’t leave! Don’t miss! Bye-bye! The anchor’s job includes opening and closing the newscast, teasing upcoming items and promoting other news-division offerings. This occupies about 120 seconds.

4. Live! from somewhere: Anchors sometimes go out on the road as reporters. In 2005, NBC’s Brian Williams averaged about one such segment a week (59 in the 52 weeks, for 166 minutes of airtime). CBS’ Bob Schieffer spent only 22 minutes. Peter Jennings’ death makes counting ABC hard to do.

Add all these bits and pieces together, and we find that an evening-news anchor averages four minutes of face time and seven minutes of speaking time each night. For Couric, this represents not much more than a single celebrity interview on Today.

So what makes the anchors’ job worth all the money they get? On public radio’s storytelling This American Life series in 1998, ABC’s quirky correspondent Robert Krulwich related a vivid example of Jennings’ anchor skills. He told Jennings that the next night he had a segment about the power of beetles. Jennings implied that he would give it an enthusiastic intro. Krulwich recalls that, the next night, Jennings “did this amazing thing that gives you a sense of how subtle television can get when it wants to.” Introducing the segment, he recalls, Jennings “lights up. His face just turns all happy. After it was over, he did a non-verbal act. The piece ends and he just sits there silently, glowing.”

Krulwich concludes that Jennings’ on-air presence made people enjoy the story. He summed up Jennings’ role: “I am the man in the center. I am the center of gravity here. If the center likes this, then you do.”

The essence of anchoring lies not in time spent reading the news but in the non-verbal act of selling the story. That’s what CBS is paying Katie for—or it better be.