Last week, in the midst of an increasingly tense battle for ratings, both NBC and CBS named new executive producers to their nightly newscasts. At NBC’s Nightly News, news division VP Alexandra Wallace replaced John Reiss; at CBS’ Evening News, industry veteran Rick Kaplan replaced Rome Hartman. Reiss had been in his role for less than two years, Hartman for slightly more than a year. Wallace’s career includes a decade at CBS News and executive-producing NBC’s Weekend Today. Kaplan started at CBS News and spent 18 years at ABC, including executive-producing Nightline and World News Tonight With Peter Jennings; he also served as president of MSNBC and CNN. The two step into their roles at a tumultuous time: NBC lost February sweeps to ABC’s World News for the first time since 1996, and CBS languishes in third place after a glitzy debut for anchor Katie Couric six months ago.
Both Kaplan and Wallace talked to Anne Becker about the myriad challenges ahead.
Why do you think this newscast has struggled?
All three anchors changed on all three networks. When you look at it logically, you realize that, on NBC, they had spent months, even years preparing to transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams, a known commodity to the NBC audience, and it was a simple evolution. At ABC, Charlie [Gibson] is also a superb anchor and has been on the air on ABC forever, and the transition even through all their turmoil was to somebody the ABC audience recognized.
CBS did a very courageous thing: They went outside. They brought in a terrific anchor, among the finest ever in the business, somebody familiar to the television audience in general but not as familiar to the CBS audience, especially the CBS Evening News audience. And they transitioned from one of the middle-aged white guys to a woman, which also takes the audience time to get used to.
You’re in a period where audiences are determining how they’re going to spend their time. They’re looking at three brand-new anchors, so to speak. I just think what you see is normal flux of audiences. I think you’ll see the ratings bounce back and forth a lot.
Couric was just named favorite journalist of the year by the Pew Research Center, yet her show is still in third place. Do you think that people are not ready to see a woman running a newscast?
That’s silly. Women have taken their place at the table in journalism. This is just a matter of an audience getting used to an anchor they’re not used to on their network. This is pretty much the second inning of a nine-inning game.
What kinds of changes do you plan to make?
We intend to look for stronger ways to really serve the needs of our viewers. The first time I did evening news when I was working on the Cronkite show, and when I did Peter Jennings or Nightline or any of the shows I’ve done, until the anchor said, “Good evening. Here’s the news,” [the audience] didn’t know what was going on because there wasn’t 24/7 [news] and people really were reliant on the evening news.
That made the show more compelling, but it also made it in many ways a different kind of challenge: It was a matter of putting things in perspective as they happened. Today, people come to the TV set informed, and we have a responsibility to carry the news ahead.
So what is the relevance of a nightly newscast now?
I really don’t think there’s a more relevant newscast in the industry than the nightly news. A lot’s written about shrinking audiences in the press. On most nights, the evening news is one of the highest-rated programs on a network’s schedule, including primetime. There’s still 25 million-30 million people that go into the time slot every night. That’s a lot of people searching for information.
Do you think too much is made of ratings in analyzing executive changes?
Ratings are a way we measure how well one’s message is resonating. That is a factor. But it’s my experience—and it’s clearly the attitude around CBS News—that the first concern is to the continued development of the program. If you’re doing a program you are satisfied with and you like the path it’s on, that really comes before the ratings; the ratings will come. It’s kind of like Field of Dreams: If we build it, they will come.
Your former colleague Bill Lord at ABC News told The New York Times that ratings are mostly related to the anchor. So why, when ratings dip, is it the executive producer who’s out?
I think Bill would agree that the only thing that can make you No. 1 is your anchor, because, ultimately, people are tuning in to watch someone. But if the producers and the cast of people who bring the reporting to life aren’t doing the job, [the show won’t last].
You’re looking for the perfect storm: the great anchor and the great staff. The anchor makes you No. 1, and the staff assures it.
You’ve dealt with some pretty strong personalities in your years in the industry. What’s your strategy to get everyone on the same page about how the news should look?
I’ve been really privileged to work with extraordinary journalists: Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Charlie and now Katie. The joy of working with them is that they have a lot of input, and a smart producer cherishes and uses that. It’s not that you always have to agree, but it’s that, when you disagree, you know how to keep your relationship growing.
That’s what I’ve always enjoyed with any anchor I’ve worked with. They’re all strong personalities. Frankly, they’re worth every dime.
It’s the anchor who’s going to get stuck with what did or didn’t work. They’re the ones whose signature is on the show very dramatically.
Diane Sawyer and I used to joke that it’s like a marriage: It’s not about the argument, it’s how you make up.
You’re known for being a tough boss and having sharp elbows. Is that how you see yourself?
[The newscast] doesn’t work unless it is a joint, communal process. That said, I clearly have a vision of what I like and high standards taught to me here at CBS News. But I once asked a writer, who by the way was the first person to write about my sharp elbows, “Why did you write that?” and he said, “I don’t know. My editor thought it would make you more colorful.” I said, “I’m going to have to live that down for the rest of my life.”
That article ran 27 years ago, and ever since, I’m asked about elbows. When you’re 6 foot 7, you’re consistently compared to a bear. I’m used to being compared to all types of animals. I saw one article that said I was a bull in a china shop. At this advanced stage of my career, I prefer to think of myself as a gazelle in the china shop.
Are you aiming to bring in younger viewers?
In every block of audience, there’s a certain percentage in every age group. The larger you make your sample, the larger the number of the key demo.
At this network, Katie Couric has already brought in a healthier, younger demo than network news has been used to in the past. I can tell you that our Evening News, for instance, is up nearly 10% in women 18-49. But if we increased our total comp of audience by 10%, we would also increase our demo by close to 10%. So I’m shooting for a 100 share of the audience, and in 100 share, I’m going to have a lot of young people.
To read full comments from Rick Kaplan, go to broadcastingcable.com
You have had a meteoric rise in television news. What makes you qualified for this job?
I view it as a slow rise because I have been doing this for 19 years now. I slowly climbed through the ranks at CBS, and then I got here, and things happened more quickly.
I remember watching [NBC Universal CEO] Jeff Zucker head the Today show at the age of 15 or something, and I was incredibly impressed that NBC gave him that opportunity.
This company was willing to take a chance on me when they put me in the front office, and they’re willing to take a chance on me at Nightly.
But I’ve also never let anyone down in any challenge I’ve ever been given, so I think I’m a decent bet.
Your experience is largely in morning television. Does that put you at a disadvantage on a nightly newscast?
I actually consider myself a hard-news, evening kind of girl because I started in the London bureau. I was on the foreign desk at CBS. When I was at 48 Hours, we were doing a lot of hard news. I was a producer for the evening news.
Look, I wasn’t in charge of the fashion segments when I was [on] morning [news] either.
I’m not particularly fashionable, but nothing against it. I think it’s good to have a mix of experience, and that’s one thing I kind of tried to do coming up through the ranks: do evening, do some morning, do some magazine.
I think it’s good to do a little bit of everything.
Why do you think that NBC was down this sweeps period?
Look, it’s very cyclical; I really believe it’s been a blip on the radar. I’m absolutely not concerned about our long-term prognosis. ABC did well in sweeps. I definitely think lead-in is a very big part of it. And I don’t want to take away from the competition.
Charlie puts on a good nightly newscast. I personally think that ours is better.
You’ve said you’ll tweak the show only minimally. How so?
People like to know what they’re getting at 6:30, and there should be continuity. It might just be a slightly different way of telling a story, a slightly different voice in a story, a slightly different story selection on a way to end a show. That’s just a sensibility.
We put on a really good show. It’s a matter of slight changes here and there.
If all of the nightly newscasts continue to lose viewers, then how are they relevant?
A shocking number of people still watch these shows: 25 million with all three combined. I’m online all day; I get that you can get your news elsewhere.
I do think there’s something very nice at the end of the day about being able to sit down and be told [the news]. I like someone to summarize it for me. I like someone to put it all in one place.
Look, we’re evolving with the times as well. You can see our Webcast online, and if you want to watch it at 10 p.m., watch at 10 p.m.
[The nightly newscast is] not as dead as people say it is. I actually think that it’s got a lot of life left in it.
To read full comments from Alex Wallace, go to broadcastingcable.com
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