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The Ruling Class of TV News

Diane Sawyer recently ascended to the anchor chair at ABC's World News after doing yeoman work in morning television and being passed over twice for the job. The post—which she'll inherit from Charles Gibson in January—is one she's obviously long coveted. The only question some may ask is: Why?

Sawyer appears, on paper, to be giving up a dream job. As co-host of Good Morning America, she's fronting a proven money maker that helps bankroll the news division and wields considerable weight in the company's executive suites.

The evening news broadcasts on ABC, CBS and NBC—22 minutes of current events presented without bluster or partisan posturing—have seen their audiences decline steadily since the mid-1980s. Total viewership for the three broadcasts was close to 50 million in 1980. Now they are aggregating about 22 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. And yet the evening news anchor's influence still moves way beyond the 22 minutes of Teleprompter-delivered news of the day.

“The significance of this has less to do with the change in Sawyer's job,” says independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Her day job [will be] reading the news every night for a half hour, [but] that's not what she's going to be paid for. She is now going to become the face of ABC News.”

This is not a move for money or market share. Pundits have been predicting the end of the evening news for years, but the vast hoopla related to Sawyer's job shift only proves that getting the anchor post on one of these three networks is still the television industry equivalent of being appointed to the Supreme Court.

At ABC, Sawyer will now set the tone and be the news personality of the network. She will be relied upon to be the trusted election-night presence, and will go head-to-head with fellow anchors Katie Couric of CBS and NBC's Brian Williams.

“Those three individuals have tremendous respect from a mass audience,” says Jon Banner, executive producer of World News. “I think the 6:30 broadcast is built around that.”

Much has understandably been made of the groundbreaking reality of having two women among these three positions of influence. Just as important is this: Given the speed of the news cycle—and the fact that the audience for the 6:30 p.m. newscast is literally dying off—we're perhaps seeing the start of the last group of TV's power news anchors. Sawyer got her perfect job just in time.

Sawyer's move has drawn attention back to the 6:30 news, where she will be plunged into another important ratings battle. When Sawyer succeeds Gibson, her former co-host on Good Morning America, she will be, at 63, the oldest of the evening news anchors. After a rocky start exacerbated by incessantly negative media coverage, Couric, 52, has settled into her role—and executed high-profile interviews during the presidential campaigns, most notably with erstwhile GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Her newscast, however, remains stuck in third in the ratings. Williams, 50, is the youngest, soon to be the only male and the one with the most experience in the anchor chair.

Much of the commentary about Sawyer's impending shift has focused on gender, and this promises to set up a cat-fight redux with Couric, against whom Sawyer competed in morning television when Couric was at Today. Williams will run away from the field, say observers, because evening-news viewers, whose average age is almost 60, prefer to get their news from a man.

A horse race between Williams and Gibson in 2007 ended with Gibson's World News finishing the year as the most-watched evening news broadcast for the first time in more than a decade. But Williams, who is a regular and affable presence on the variety show circuit (he'll make occasional appearances on Jay Leno's new NBC program), pushed his newscast back into the lead in 2008; it has remained there for 47 consecutive weeks (based on a five-day average).

Williams, according to Bob Epstein, executive producer of NBC Nightly News, “is probably the most important key to our success. The public has now had five years of seeing Brian in this role. They like him. They trust him. He is impassioned about the broadcast and covering the news.”

The post is a linchpin in the current network climate. It is helpful that Williams—newsman, relentless blogger, wry talk show commentator—can wear many hats, which helps promote his anchor job.

As profits at the evening newscasts have declined along with their market dominance, the debate about their survival has grown louder. Executives at the networks insist that their newscasts are profitable, though they declined to offer figures. The evening news costs millions to mount, and has a newsgathering footprint that spans national and international outposts.

“We have to make money,” Banner says, “because we couldn't keep people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq and China for as long as we have without paying for it.”

The CBS Evening News pulled in $70.8 million in ad revenue for the first six months of the year, according to data provided by TNS Media Intelligence. That figure was down nearly $17 million compared to the same period in 2008, which came before the advertising market hit the skids. Nightly News earned $71.6 million for the same period, down nearly $7 million year-to-year. And World News had ad revenue approaching $90 million, off less than $2 million year-to-year, TNS says. (The TNS numbers are based on rate cards. According to advertising industry sources, Nightly News revenue for the first six months of the year is actually closer to $80 million, and should be about 15% higher than ad revenue for the CBS Evening News.)

The morning shows, rife with synergistic marketing opportunities thanks to a menu heavy on lifestyle segments, are the cash cows of the news divisions. GMA earned more than $300 million in ad revenue in 2008, according to TNS. But the evening news, and its anchor, gives the entire enterprise essential credibility.

There's a reason Couric, Gibson, Sawyer and generations before them have aspired to the perch, and it's not just to ditch the anti-social hours of morning TV. When events send Americans to their television sets, they are not simply looking for information; they are looking for a steady voice and an authoritative presence.

“No one wants to be the first network to give up their evening newscast,” says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. “If you did, you would not have an evening anchor who could handle major events. Presidents still give speeches, crises still happen, there are still elections.”

You'd also be disappointing a public long used to hearing those voices. According to a just-released Pew Research Center survey, 76% of respondents said it would be an “important loss” if the nightly newscasts went away. And while network TV evening newscasts skew toward an older audience, more people age 18-29 (83%) acknowledged the importance of that loss than did the 60-plus crowd (74%), according to the survey. News of the evening news show's death is, in other words, a little premature.

The evening news is also a major component of the business structure for the hundreds of network affiliates, creating flow across the early prime schedule that generates valuable advertising revenue. “You could make the case that viewers are no longer conditioned to watch news at an appointed time,” says Bill Fine, president and general manager of WCVB, the Hearst-owned ABC affiliate in Boston. “But you can't make that case at 6 o'clock.”

Local stations have been battered by media fragmentation that gives viewers myriad choices for news, but ratings data show that many are still looking for that traditional blend of local and national reporting from 6-7 p.m., according to Fine. “Is it a smaller audience? Sure. Do we have more competitors than we've ever had at any time in our lives? Absolutely. But the fact is it's still relevant for a lot of people. Too many to ignore, and we don't.”

The broadcast landscape has changed immensely in the last several years. Evidence of decline is everywhere. But while the evening news broadcasts have been losing approximately a million viewers a year for the past 25 years, other dayparts are in worse shape.

“If you're a [broadcast] network executive, you're not worried about 6:30,” Tyndall says. “You've got many other headaches to worry about before that one. You've got sports and entertainment and daytime. I mean, The Guiding Light just got canceled, for crying out loud.”

If it proves successful, NBC's Jay Leno gambit, which will save the network millions in programming costs, has the potential to cause ripple effects across the broadcast schedule. ABC had been debating a similar move with a mix of variety and news at 10 p.m., according to sources.

Cast against this tumult, the evening news—once the proud landscape of Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley, and then of Brokaw, Jennings and Rather—may look increasingly anachronistic. But a 22-minute program presided over by a $15 million anchor notwithstanding, the fundamental structure of these broadcasts—produced segments fronted by correspondents—may actually be the key to the news organizations' digital future.

“If the Web is going to end up being the future of network content, not in two or three years but in some longer period of time, these programs may turn out to be more important than they appear now,” Rosenstiel says. “Because the kind of content that goes into building a network newscast is closer to what your Websites are going to be than the Today show.”

If and when news eventually does migrate to a predominantly online, on-demand model, the high-priced anchor could be the most conspicuous cost-saving casualty. All of which may make Sawyer the last of a dying breed: the anchor star forged in the trenches of hard news.

Sawyer earned her bona fides well before taking on the 3:30 a.m. wakeup call and lighter stories of morning news. She was the first female correspondent on 60 Minutes and a stalwart of the newsmagazine heyday; she donned a head scarf to interview Saddam Hussein and reported on bio-terror before it became a grim staple of foreign coverage. The rise of cable news meant that potential star successors at the broadcast networks were lured away to fill anchor chairs in a less distinguished and smaller arena.

As a consequence, network news failed to develop new stars. ABC News President David Westin's current problem—how to fill Sawyer's shoes on GMA—underscores this trend. It's a pattern that only elevates the importance of Sawyer—and her new job—to the network.

“Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings all earned their credibility and their Q rating as correspondents, and by covering a lot of very important stories,” Rosenstiel says. “Big stories make big journalists. Edward R. Murrow was made larger by [World War II] and the documentaries that he did and the [causes] he took on. And those things weren't diminished by the celebrity stuff that he did. You're defined by the best stuff you do.”