CBS News had a problem. It was 1952 and the network had dispatched its stars to the Republican National Convention in Chicago, the first ever to be nationally televised. But CBS wanted to showcase an impressive rookie, a local newsman from Washington, D.C., named Walter Cronkite. How to organize the broadcast? A young producer named Don Hewitt, the future mastermind behind "60 Minutes," conjured up the image of a relay race. Each on-air journalist would do a segment and then hand off to the next. Cronkite would get the last word. He'd be the "anchor leg." Three days later, when it was over, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Republican nominee, millions of households had tuned in and Cronkite was on his way to becoming the "most trusted man in America."
CBS News now faces a far more difficult problem. The network says Katie Couric, the face of "CBS Evening News" for the past 19 months, will lead the network's convention coverage this summer. But Couric's ratings have dropped from 10 million households shortly after she assumed the anchor's chair, to about 6 million, and headlines have heralded a post-election departure for Couric. And Hewitt, 85, the man who coined the term "anchor," says it may signal the end of an era. Today's anchors no longer possess the magnetism to draw new viewers, he says. "They're all good but not great," says Hewitt. "There are no more Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys. Tom Brokaw's face was the logo of NBC. Peter Jennings's was ABC News."
In the past three years, a new generation has succeeded the big names. Brian Williams took over at NBC in 2004 and Charles Gibson became anchor at "ABC World News" in 2006. In September of that year, Couric anchored her first CBS newscast as the permanent replacement for Dan Rather. But while millions of viewers get their news fix from the evening broadcasts, the overall audience continues a decades-long drop. Last year, ABC, CBS and NBC averaged 23.1 million viewers a night, down 5 percent or 1.2 million households, from 2006. That compares with an average annual slide of 1 million viewers over the past 25 years. "In 2007, the first full year of new anchors, the steady decline in audience accelerated rather than ebbed," according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpolitical and nonpartisan arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts. CBS wouldn't comment; NBC News president Steve Capus wasn't available.
But "network news anchors are still drawing by far the largest audiences in any media today," says a spokesman for ABC News. And slumping ratings don't necessarily mean viewers are repudiating anchors. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence, says it's unfair to blame the anchors alone. People are working more hours and commute longer distances and aren't home for the 6:30 newscasts. And a nonstop stream of Internet news means "it's not necessary for people to tune in the evening news to get the first headline," he says.
Other experts say anchors still matter to throngs of remaining broadcast news fans. "People still tend to identify with the host of the show," said Neal Shapiro, CEO of New York PBS affiliate Thirteen/WNET, who once ran NBC News. "They say they watch Brian, Charlie and Katie." He adds, however, that the day has long since passed that a sitting president gauges the sentiment of the citenzry by the actions and words of anchors. He was alluding to Lyndon Johnson's reaction to Cronkite's declaration that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America," Johnson lamented.
Even Hewitt isn't for tossing out the anchor format altogether. The chairs once occupied by Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley merely need "some serious reupholstering," he recently told an audience of local anchors when he received the Edward R. Murrow Lifetime Achievement Award. One of his ideas is for networks to insert local news anchors into the national broadcasts, maybe with one- or two-minute spots for the hometown TV personalities to give local angles to big stories. "That would make the national newscasts more appealing in every town," Hewitt surmises. "In most cities, the local anchor is the local celebrity." So maybe today's anchors today need to shoot for being the most trusted men or women in town.