What “Voice of God”?

With Dan Rather leaving the CBS Evening News on March 9, what format will eventually replace the show? On-the-record comments emanating from Black Rock are few. However, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves dropped a confusing set of clues when he briefed reporters in January.

Moonves called the newscast “antiquated” as he announced a search for a new approach. He characterized the current format as the “Voice of God,” by which, he said, he meant “that guy sitting behind the desk who everyone believes to the nth degree.” He asserted that such a format alienates younger viewers, who prefer to receive news in “bits and pieces” instead.

Moonves is obviously not a fan of his own newscast. From his comments, it is not clear that he actually watches it that closely, either.

Let’s clarify the current format. The half-hour nightly newscast is primarily a vehicle for produced and taped packages filed by correspondents. The newscasts are not showcases for their anchors. CBS Evening News averages seven of these packages each night, and they occupy fully 83% of the editorial news hole. Dan Rather’s “Voice of God” is heard on average just 6.5 minutes each night. Almost three minutes of that total is spent on “tell” stories and voice-over items; two minutes on teases, promos, openings and closings; and less than two minutes introducing the taped packages. Rather is seen on-screen behind his desk for less than four minutes each night.

What would happen to the format of the Evening News if these correspondent packages were dismantled into supposedly youth-friendly bits and pieces? One clue can be found in the format of the show-business news half-hours that follow the nightly newscasts.

Entertainment Tonight, for example, sports the multiple-anchor format Moonves is mulling. It averages few produced packages each day (ET 2.4 vs. CBS 7.0) and a cavalcade of anchor-read briefs (ET 18.6 vs. CBS 8.2).

Where the Evening News is a correspondent’s medium, ET and its ilk are an editor’s. Spliced into its footage from reporters are an average of 17 separate movie/TV/music clips each day and 37 different sound bites, 68% of which are from the mouths of celebrities. Sound bites are much more frequent on Entertainment Tonight than on the CBS Evening News (2.2 versus 1.4 per editorial minute, respectively). ET’s format is well-adapted to covering a beat where high-production quality clips are freely given and beautiful people are eager to be quoted. Applying that format to a global hard-news beat would be quite a trick.

A second clue to CBS’ thinking can be found on cable news, where Shepard Smith anchors the hour-long high-velocity Fox Report each night. Smith’s packages are slightly shorter on average than Rather’s (126 seconds versus 134), and his anchor-only items (tell stories, voiceovers) average slightly longer (28 seconds versus 20), but the huge difference is in the story count: Smith’s hour averages 34 separate anchor-only items and 10 correspondent packages.

While Smith certainly sports the booming baritone of an imaginary Voice of God, no one could confuse his smart-aleck style with divine pronouncements. Nevertheless, despite what Moonves implied in January, this bits-and-pieces style does not put less emphasis on the anchor. On the contrary, the Fox Report’s helter-skelter format gives Smith a more dominant presence than Rather has on the Evening News. Anchor-only items occupy 49% of the time in Smith’s news hole, only 17% in Rather’s.

As for what follows the Voice of God, the devil is in the details.