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The Changing Face of TV Anchors

Anchoring his State of the Union program on CNN Jan. 7, Jake Tapper’s frustration threatened to bubble over multiple times as he sparred with Stephen Miller, senior policy adviser to President Donald Trump. He delivered a stern stare to his frequently interrupting guest. He said viewers “can ascertain who’s being hysterical.” His eyebrows zoomed skyward and his hand shot out in an effort to calm his excitable guest.

“Settle down,” implored Tapper. “Settle down. Calm down!”

The interview ended prematurely, with Tapper addressing the camera as his guest continued trying to hammer home a point in favor of the president. “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” Tapper concluded.

It was a unique display for a news anchor, and a drastic departure from the longtime anchor model of dispassionate stoicism. Indeed, since TV news began back in the 1940s, anchors have delivered the day’s news with a stone face and the so-called Voice of God, a tone both authoritative and impartial.

But TV news is evolving, and with it the demeanor of its anchors. While the bulk of cases where anchors reveal their emotions happens in cable news, where they have more time to fill and more guests to grill, the broadcast networks — always looking to attract a younger audience — may rethink the model that’s been a part of their DNA for many decades. A new evening news entrant on broadcast, with Jeff Glor taking on the CBS Evening News in early December, served to get many news veterans wondering about the ideal manner in which to deliver the day’s top stories.

“I think it’s a must — if you want to succeed, you have to be yourself,” said Jonathan Klein, former CNN president, and CEO of online video network Tapp. “Viewers have an authenticity detector, and you can’t succeed if you don’t have it.”

Uncle Walter

For many, many years, anchors have presented the news with an unyielding impartiality, the likes of Edward R. Murrow, John Chancellor and David Brinkley offering viewers persistently sober reports. Klein said local TV anchors took their cues from the network newsmen years ago.

“They began to imitate a certain tone and style that they thought was required,” he said. “They had in mind a voice that they thought was a legitimate anchor voice.”

If they felt impassioned about a story they were reporting, the anchors kept it to themselves. The stoicism carried on despite a plea from Newton Minow, then the FCC chief, that anchors share their opinions. Addressing a National Association of Broadcasters crowd in Washington on 1961, in the same address where he famously told broadcasters of the “vast wasteland” appearing on their air, he pushed for “editorializing” in the news. “The FCC has now encouraged editorializing for years,” Minow said. “We want you to do this; we want you to editorialize, take positions. We only ask that you do it in a fair and responsible manner.”

The FCC, he said, would always encourage “a fair and responsible clash of opinions.”

Yet anchors, and their producers, declined his invitation to clash. “For the networks, credibility and trust are the No. 1 thing going for them,” said Martin Kaplan, Norman Lear chair in entertainment, media and society at USC Annenberg. “Outrage or snark might undercut their credibility.”

Even amidst their impassive demeanors, the most popular anchors did let their personalities poke through on occasion. Who can forget Walter Cronkite, holding back tears as he told the nation that President John F. Kennedy had been killed 38 minutes before? “It was an incredibly human moment,” Deborah Lynn Jaramillo, director of the graduate film and television studies program at Boston University, said.

In an era where consumers connect with celebrities through podcasts and social media, there’s an increasing expectation that public figures show their human side. “You have to look like/act like the audience you desire,” Al Tompkins, Poynter Institute senior faculty, broadcast and online, said. “You have to reflect authentic ways in your newscast.”

Partisan Punditry

There’s a lot more room for demonstrative anchors on cable. The anchors are on for longer than the 30 minutes allotted an evening news anchor on broadcast, and they frequently interview guests, whose responses can elicit frustration or agreement. Unlike broadcast news, where the program is the star, cable news standouts typically host self-titled shows, such as Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN and Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News Channel.

Moreover, the partisan pundits of cable news, such as Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, have gotten viewers used to anchors with a personal take on the day’s issues. While their employers fancy themselves as news networks, primetime hosts such as those are more pundits on the day’s happenings than anchors delivering the latest with some semblance of the traditional news delivery. Impartiality is not an asset they boast of.

“The audience is conditioned to expect edginess from cable anchors,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward said. “They’re more reactive, less even-keeled.”

Heyward said the broadcast anchors have loosened up a bit over the years. World News Tonight anchor David Muir offers an emotionally involved take on the news, according to several news analysts. It’s notable that both he and Jeff Glor, who started in the CBS Evening News chair Dec. 4, are considerably younger than the anchors that came before them. Muir is 44 and Glor, who succeeded interim anchor Anthony Mason, is 42. Mason, 61, succeeded Scott Pelley, who was 60.

In his early appearances on the CBS Evening News, Glor did not look to blow up the traditional anchor model. “A classic broadcaster,” is how one pundit described Glor. The Evening News anchor said simply covering “the best stories we can” will draw viewers young and old.

“The best writing, the best reporting that we can put on the air,” Glor said. “No matter what age you are, people find that.”

NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt also would have fit in at the anchor desk at any point in the last half-century with his unemotional manner, news analysts said. Yet his promos show a more engaged anchor. “When I was a young reporter, I thought, well, being a reporter, you have no emotion,” Holt said in one of the promos. “And that’s not entirely correct.”

Some analysts said broadcast’s Sunday morning shows, which run for an hour and feature a lineup of guests, similar to the cable news model, offer a bit more room for an emotive anchor than the evening newscasts do.

Morning Might

A broadcast network’s brand-defining newscast has shifted over the years from evening to morning. The three evening broadcast newscasts drew an aggregate 23,750,000 viewers in 2016, according to Pew Research Center, down from 23,871,000 the year before. Revenue is on the rise, at $420,877,000 in 2016, up from $374,721,000 the year before. But that pales when compared to the $836,462,000 the three morning newscasts, NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America and CBS’s CBS This Morning, garnered in 2016.

“Evening newscasts are not drivers of revenue and profit,” Klein said. “A.M. news is.”

Morning news, which sees an anchor shift between interviewing a world leader, cooking up something in the kitchen and quizzing a movie star about a new film, allows much more of an anchor’s personality to shine through than the evening segments do.

The time may be right for evening anchors to let their personalities show, too, even if they don’t go as far as the editorializing Minow pushed for. News analysts note a stark difference between an emotionally engaged anchor and one who indicates an ideological bent. The latter won’t happen, they said, but the former probably should.

“There has to be a new way of thinking in the delivery of news,” said Andrew Tyndall, editor of The Tyndall Report. “It should be, human beings do the news for you, rather than a corporate machine.”

Millennial viewers may expect anchors to connect with them the way that NBA players, movie stars and music icons do on newer media platforms. “They expect to see people they can relate to,” Klein said, “people who act more naturally.”

Klein described a media landscape where late-night hosts, striving to be more personable, are breaking from the more poised norm established by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show decades before. “Authority figures are passé,” he said.

David Rhodes, president of CBS News, said the division’s digital CBSN offers a way to connect with younger viewers. “To the degree we’ve thought about different-age cohorts of the audience and how to get them, it’s as much a discussion about developing these digital platforms,” he said, “as it is about who is narrowly in the tent of one broadcast and one platform.”

How Much Is Too Much?

Of course, there is a risk in putting oneself out there. ESPN suspended SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill after she weighed in on NFL national anthem protests on Twitter. And while former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams lost his job for fibbing about being in a military helicopter that was struck by an RPG, some believe his appearances on the show biz side of TV, showing a lighter side, were also a factor.

When Williams was suspended in 2015, TV critic David Zurawik of the Baltimore Sun wrote about his phone ringing off the hook, agents and newsroom executives talking up the virtues of Williams’ broadcast network rivals. “The theme: Muir and Pelley are the anti-Brian Williams, the anchorman known the last couple of years more for ‘slow-jamming the news’ with Jimmy Fallon than covering it responsibly,” he wrote.

Yet an anchor working to build a personal connection with viewers might be what networks need. Heyward noted that the “language of digital” is all about authenticity. “Young people don’t have use for the clichés of TV news,” he said. “They do value an authentic experience.”

Klein and Jeff Gaspin, former chairman of NBCUniversal Television, founded Tapp, which offers video channels for “personalities and their super-fans.” Klein knows about how figures score with viewers.

“There’s an expectation among the audience that a real human being is going to speak to them,” Klein said of news viewers. “They don’t relate to stars who won’t be his or her own self.”