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Scott Pelley Is on the Clock

Inside the June 6 Issue

When Scott Pelley slid into the CBS Evening News anchor chair on June 6, 2011, succeeding Katie Couric, it was the 60 Minutes correspondent’s first time anchoring a newscast at any level. Five years later, the program remains stuck in third place, but CBS Evening News is growing its Nielsens at a time when ratings points are hard to come by. The broadcast has added more than 1.4 million viewers since Pelley took over, from an average of nearly 6 million viewers to close to 7.4 million, by offering a hard-news program at a time when the line between news and entertainment can often be blurred. CBS Evening News averaged 7.35 million viewers this season, up 2% over last, while tallying its highest ratings in a decade.

Pelley has retained his full-time gig at 60 Minutes—he contributed the most pieces of any correspondent over the past five years, according to CBS News—and the iconic weekly news mag’s influence is readily apparent in the 6:30 p.m. nightly program. “CBS has tried really hard to take the high road, and good for them,” independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall says of Evening News. “The audience they are getting is not proportional to the quality of the product.”

Steve Capus, CBS Evening News executive producer, says it’s not uncommon for the program to lead with a three-to-four-minute enterprise feature. “We’re happy to go longer and do things that befit the CBS News brand,” Capus says. “People come to expect something truly high-caliber from CBS News, and Scott is probably the best evangelist we have of that kind of programming.”

A few weeks before his five-year anchor anniversary, Pelley, 58, spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about Evening News’ plans to bust out of third place, the perspective-changing advice he got from his daughter and how long he will continue in the dual roles. An edited transcript follows.

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What was morale like when you turned up at Evening News in spring 2011?

There was a sense of optimism, I think. We had burrowed into a pretty deep hole in terms of ratings, and there was just a great sense of change. It was also brought on by Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, coming over to be chairman of the whole news division; people had a lot of faith, a lot of hope in that. There was going to be a huge revamp and rollout of CBS This Morning, the evening news was going to have a 60 Minutes correspondent for an anchorman and many other things were changing. We were making great hires among producers and correspondents. So everybody thought the sun was rising again on CBS News.

Growth for CBS Evening News ratings has been slow but steady. To what do you attribute it?

My pet theory is that it has a lot to do with the internet world we live in today. Never before has more information been available to people. But at the same time, never before has more bad information been available to people. I think a lot of folks turn to CBS News because it’s a brand they trust. They can watch the Evening News [on TV] or online and get a sense of what really happened in the world today. A good, hard news broadcast that doesn’t waste their time, telling the 12 most important stories of the day in 30 minutes. People who have seen things online at work or at school all day long wonder, did that really happen? They trust Evening News because they know there are serious journalists and serious editors here who are devoted to getting it right.

Related: Reena Ninan Joins CBS News as Correspondent

Is there concern that millennials won’t inherit their parents’ viewing habits regarding evening news?

They certainly won’t inherit their parents’ viewing habits. When I was a very, very young reporter in this business, there were three television networks, as God intended. These days, my kids are growing up in a very different world. What they’re doing now is going online with a question: Did Donald Trump really say that about Muslims? Did the country’s unemployment rate really tick up, and why? When they take a question to the internet, they find CBS News there. That brings them into our brand, into our world, and from there they branch out to 60 Minutes and CBS This Morning and everything else we offer. The route young people take to CBS News is different. But I think all our data, online and broadcasting, indicates they are still finding us. In fact our largest growth area this year has been the 25-54 demo.

You pay attention to ratings…

I do. We don’t make any decision in the Fish Bowl [CBS Evening News’ conference room] based on ratings. To be perfectly honest, it never comes up. Never do we ever make editorial decisions based on, do you think this will appeal to the 25-54 demo, or will this do better with that audience if we lead with this instead of that? It literally never comes up.

Having said that, yeah, I care. This is the best evening news broadcast in America, and we do not deserve be No. 3. It makes me crazy.

We’ve grown 140,000 [total viewers] so far this season to date. (Editor’s note: Evening News’ season-ending gain in May was 120,000 viewers.) What that tells me is, people come to our broadcast and they stay. Almost 1.5 million viewers have joined our broadcast in the last five years. That tells me our journalism is working—people like what they see. If we can just get them to watch, they stick. That’s what we work on doing every day. What we’re doing is working beautifully. I just wish it was working faster.

How has the broadcast evolved?

The broadcast hasn’t evolved as much as the anchorman has evolved! I had never anchored a television news program in my life. The very first program I anchored was the CBS Evening News. I had a lot to learn, a really steep learning curve about how to relate to the audience, how to write [for] this broadcast, because I’d been writing [for] 60 Minutes for a dozen years before that. So I have evolved a great deal; I’ve become much more comfortable in the role. I still do not do as well as I can; I know what to do, yet somehow can’t quite do it. But I’m working at it every day, trying to be the best version of myself, representing, if you will, all the people around the world on the broadcast. That’s really my job—distributing the ball and editing everybody’s copy so everybody can be the very best they can be.

[Starting from] Day 1, we have been the hard news broadcast of record. As I recall that day [June 6, 2011], because it’s very memorable to me, our competitors led with Anthony Weiner, the congressman who posted salacious pictures of himself online. We led with a story out of Afghanistan, about what our troops were up against in the new fighting season with the Taliban. That has been the DNA of the broadcast ever since then, under [former executive producer] Pat Shevlin in those days and even more so under Steve Capus. We want to be the hard news broadcast of record. In this day and age we cannot waste the audience’s time—they will not stand for it. Our hope has been, since the very first day, that the audience watches and says, ‘That was worth my time—I learned something.’

At what point did you finally feel comfortable in the chair?

I think it was about halfway through the broadcast yesterday [laughs]. I think of it as on-the-job training. Journalism, as you know, is the world’s greatest continuing education program. I always look at my work that way, as a learning experience.

After we got through the last presidential campaign and I had traveled to all the primaries as the anchorman, I’d covered Election Night as the anchorman, I’d covered the presidential inauguration as the anchorman—once I got through all those things and had done a great deal of extemporaneous speaking live on-air, I started to think, OK, I can do this. I can get through this day after day.

You remind me as we talk about this, something my daughter told me in 2011, before I started. She would’ve been a teenager. I confided in her, ‘Honey, I don’t know if I can do this.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Dad, you just have to do it!’ [laughs]. Which is about the best advice I ever got from anybody in the industry. I just went out and did it. And by doing it you just start to get it.

Any concerns that either of the dual roles of Evening News and 60 Minutes takes you away from the other?

It is, to be honest with you, a time-management issue all the time. The people at 60 Minutes think I spend too much time on the Evening News, and people at the Evening News think I spend too much time at 60 Minutes. But what it gives us is a priceless synergy between the two broadcasts that never existed before. So now everything I do on 60 Minutes is on the evening news. When I get shot out of a cannon [rushing to cover a major story] for the Evening News—as we did going to Paris for the terrorist attacks—everything I do there ends up on 60 Minutes. It’s a wonderful synergy that’s facilitated by Jeff Fager, insisted upon by Jeff Fager. It has turned out to be a wonderful bonus for both broadcasts. The only one that has to pay is me.

It must be physically and psychologically exhausting.

It is both physically and psychologically exhausting. They’re very different skill sets and gosh, I love them both. At 60 Minutes we rewrite those scripts—writing is the thing I enjoy most about this job—until they’re perfect. At Evening News, we rewrite those scripts until it’s 6:30. It’s a very different kind of skill, but I enjoy doing both.

How long will you continue to do both?

As long as they let me. One of these days, someone will knock on the door and say, that’s it, thanks very much for your service. But in the meantime I’m very pleased to carry on.

What’s been your high point after five years at Evening News?

The Boston Marathon bombing was of course a terrible event, but a moment in terms of our coverage that I’m very proud of. When others were reporting that the bombers were arrested and were on their way to the courthouse in Boston, we stuck to our rules of having two sources for breaking news information and we had one source. It was a very highly placed source, but the more we tried to find a second source, the more we couldn’t. While others were on the air reporting that the bombers were arrested we dug in our heels and refused to do it. And of course it wasn’t true.

Then three days later, when the bombers were killed or apprehended, we went on the air for something like 10 hours straight, without a break, without a commercial interruption. We told the folks at home, extemporaneously from the set and from our field of correspondents, what happened minute by minute as the big shootout and manhunt was ongoing. I think it was some of the best work CBS News has ever done—thinking on our feet and covering a breaking event live.  

What was the low point?

[Pauses] I was at a Broadway theater with my wife and a text message popped up on my phone, which I always keep on my lap in case there’s breaking news. I had a note from Steve Capus that said, Call me. I wrote him back: Emergency? He texted me back and said, Yes—[CBS News correspondent] Bob Simon is dead. So I got up and came to the Broadcast Center immediately and announced to the country that Bob had been killed.

You talk about writing quite a bit. Who are your writing influences?

There are many. Bob Simon. When I was a young correspondent, I was understudy to Bob in the Gulf War—I spent a year with him in the Middle East. He not only taught me a great deal about writing; he taught me what writing could be—what the frontiers and horizons are of writing, where they could take you. He had an enormous influence my career as a writer.

Also John McPhee. He’s written about 25 books and is a professor of journalism at Princeton and a Pulitzer Prize winner. I’ve never met the man, but I go to school on his books. It’s wonderful writing.

As a young man in high school and throughout college and to this day, I’ve been very influenced by John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is my go-to novel. It’s something that I tell college students they should reread if they haven’t read it recently. It’s the moral component of writing, the empathic component of writing that I admire in The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a parable of the dispossessed for all time. If you change the name Joad to Sayeed, then you’ve got the Syrian diaspora pouring out of that unfortunate country.

You spent time on the White House beat. How is the Administration these days in terms of dealing with the media? How forthcoming they are?

[Laughs] My experience isn’t a very good baseline because I was there in 1997, 1998 and 1999, during the period of time when we impeached the president of the United States. I have never experienced a White House of openness. I have only experienced one where all the wagons are drawn tightly in a circle and the journalists are trying to peek inside the circle.

I think any White House, with the possible exception of Nixon, must have been more open than [President] Clinton’s when I was there.

One thing about the Bush administration--George W. did interviews only on extremely rare occasions. It’s a number I’m pulling out of my head, but the President might do 2-3 a year. President Obama does 2-3 a week, if not more. So the President himself has been much more accessible to the press, and that’s a very good thing. I worry sometimes that he should spend a little more of his time working on problems [laughs], but I think that a president who has been accessible is a very, very good sign. I hope it continues in the future, but it’s always a matter of the personality of the woman or man in office.

Who from outside of CBS would you like to have as a correspondent?

Mark Mazzetti at the New York Times. Half the time the New York Times breaks a story on the front page, Mark Mazzetti’s name is attached to it. He’s a superb reporter on national security affairs, and I would love to have him on the staff.

How about someone from the TV world?

There are a lot of great reporters at ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox. Everybody has terrific correspondents who have their strengths. At the moment I’ve never been happier with the team of correspondents we have--particularly overseas and in Washington. Our London bureau, which covers the Middle East, is just classic. Our Washington bureau is at full strength as well. We’re always on the lookout for talent but I don’t feel like there’s any place where we are not as strong as we can be.

Have you ever covered a story like Donald Trump before?

No one’s ever covered a story like Trump before.

We did an interview on 60 Minutes earlier in the year in which he laid out some of his controversial policy ideas. I think it’s going to be fascinating to see, as we move into the general election, whether he changes his style, and whether his policy ideas become more thought out as opposed to off the top of his head. Those debates are really going to be something. Hillary Clinton knows how to debate and it’ll be something to see Hillary and Donald Trump go head to head.

Would you say TV news covers Donald Trump in an appropriate manner or does Trump get too much say in dictating terms?

He doesn’t dictate terms to us; I doubt he dictates many terms to the others, other than not agreeing to appear in a debate here and there. TV gets a hard rap about covering Trump, as if we had somehow facilitated his rise. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. All I can speak about is CBS News. In the 60 Minutes interview, we held his feet to the fire. We pressed him all these controversial policy proposals he is making and we continue to do that at Evening News. No viewer who watches CBS News will be able to say, I didn’t know. We have laid out everything about Donald Trump, good, bad and ugly, and will continue to do so until Election Day. If you’re watching CBS News, you will not be able to say, I did not see this coming.

What do you do for fun?

I have a wonderful wife of 32 years…I’m very hopeful for 33, but it depends on how patient she can remain. We are empty nesters now so we spend all kinds of time together. One thing we like to do is sail. The world I’m in here at CBS News is by nature filled with all kinds of pressure and noise and electronic input, all kinds of things around me. To be able to step off a dock into what really is 12th century technology and sail away from the world with my wife is a beautiful thing. We look forward to springs and summers here; we sail on the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic. Very often I go sailing by myself. I [rarely] get to be alone, so I enjoy that solitude very much.

Our other big hobby is world travel—we just go all around the world. We look at maps and say, we’ve never been there, and we figure out how to get there.

Do you meet a lot of sailor types from west Texas?

Not a lot. People sometimes say, how did you get into sailing growing up in west Texas? I think maybe it’s because I grew up in west Texas and did not see the water until I was 18 years old that I really became enamored with the sea. It was so different from where I had come from.

What do you watch on the entertainment side?

We used to watch The Good Wife; unfortunately we can’t do that anymore. [The Good Wife ended May 8.] We’re really sorry it’s not on air; we just watched the finale together. We love Ken Burns documentaries—whatever the next one is we’ll flock to it. And we’re big Homeland fans.

I’m ambivalent about this concept of binge-watching. We binge-watched Homeland and then it was gone. There was nothing to look forward to. You could chew on a plot line all week if you could wait to the next broadcast, but we found ourselves unable to stop. Watching the whole thing, it’s kind of like the end of Christmas morning and there are no more presents to unwrap.

I’m not sure our model of weekly programs on network television is not the superior model. I think it is.

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.