Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Absence of identity

Faithful watchers of the network evening newscasts can't have escaped that feeling lately of being in a petri dish, as the object of scrutiny borne of an indulgence in the experimental. Things are hardly settled at the anchor desks of two of the traditional Big Three networks and, even with the increasing stratification of television viewers, that strikes a chord with many of those viewers, to say nothing of those advertisers hoping to occupy the eyeballs of those viewers for sixty seconds.

It had been in decliing health for years thanks to the multiplicity of choices available to television users in the new millennium; now, the end of the Three Wise Men format of broadcast news supremacy came with stunning swiftness. First, Dan Rather of CBS exited the stage, bruised by the "60 Minutes" scandal of the year before. Tom Brokaw of NBC News departed, avuncular and teary-eyed, shortly after Rather. And Peter Jennings, the elegant, affable, fallible, durable mainstay of ABC News for more than 20 years, died of lung cancer.

Thanks to a firm succession plan that was set in motion years ago, NBC News was well-prepared for Brokaw's official departure. Brian Williams had long been waiting in the wings, Brokaw's heir apparent. When Brokaw finally passed the baton, the peacock's transition proceeded without a hitch. But the other two networks are forced to deal with identity dramas central to television news in an increasingly competitive environment. Both ABC and CBS are to some extent victims of circumstances beyond their control; both are grappling with the ephemeral packaging and marketing of a face and identity that will resonate with viewers -- or not -- for years to come.

Jennings' long goodbye gave the network only months to plan for a successor, but it didn't lessen the apparently genuine shock when it happened. Jennings had given scrappy ABC an international flavor, a global panache that endured for a generation of TV journalism's defining moments. Now, it seemed, ABC was rudderless. A succession of pinch-hitters -- Charles Gibson, Elizabeth Vargas -- who had filled in for Jennings have continued to do so after his death.

ABC's absence of identity at the anchor desk is compounded by rumblings elsewhere at the network. Ted Koppel is engaging in his own craggy, scrapbook-style valedictory, as he prepares to step down as host of "Nightline" late this year. Most nights Koppel is in command, now as always. But lately -- and in strangely sudden ways -- "Nightline" morphs into something different. The network is testing different versions of the show, actually broadcasting them under the "Nightline" name. The "Nightline" formula has been tweaked by such guest hosts as Terry Moran and Chris Cuomo, and with edgier reporting from Jake Tapper, who joined ABC after a stint with Salon.

It's a risky strategy for as celebrated TV franchise; people like the familiar, they like being able to count on something. With no clear sense of the purpose for the "Nightline" experiment beyond field testing prototypes, and absolutely no sense of ABC's timetable settling on one or the other, the public might just turn and walk away. Jimmy Kimmel's not all that, you know.

CBS News' dilemma is something else again. Bob Schieffer, a veteran reporter for the network for more than 40 years, finally scrabbled his way to the top of the network news heap, with CBS naming him the anchor pro tem for CBS News after Rather's departure. By all estimations, Schieffer has more than earned a stint in the big chair; as reporter, "Face the Nation" host and symbol for folksy, dogged, accurate journalism, Schieffer deserved the anchor spot as the crowning touch on a stellar career.

But CBS has to balance the emotional with the practical; for all Schieffer's talents, it's fair to say (and he certainly would) that there's a lot more in the rear-view mirrror of his career than there is in front of him. CBS brass will do right by Schieffer; one might guess they'll give him the anchor post until the spring of '06; maybe, just maybe let him ride herd through the midterm elections in November, then gently usher him out, into perdition and "Special Reports" with a fat check in his hand. Just like Rather.

One way or another, it's all about the future. CBS is exploring various options. The new multi-intro format at the opening of the "CBS Evening News" gives viewers a flavor of who's doing what where and firmly reinforces the identity of the correspondents in the field. But the big question is: Who's the next anchor? Let the handicapping begin.

Culchavox's money, meager as it is, says that John Roberts is the true heir apparent. He's effectively acted as Dan Rather's deputy holding down the fort in New York while Rather was on assignment or on vacation. He's in the sweet spot for age, just gray enough to make advertisers comfortable without scaring off the younger demographic those advertisers are drooling for. John Roberts has been in the trenches as a reporter, as anyone who's seen him in verbal First Amendment fisticuffs in news conferences with Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan will attest. He's telegenic, well-spoken, physical, animal. It's Roberts' to lose.

Other names have circulated for some years. There's Scott Pelley, solid enough as a journalist, we suppose, but someone we can't look at without subconsciously thinking of Niles Crane on "Frasier." Harry Smith, another CBSer who's toiled at many stations of the cross. Ed Bradley, a veteran of "60 Minutes" and various correspondent roles over the years, has also been mentioned (but one suspects it's done out of deference to a long and impressive career rather than because anyone believes the suits at 30 Rock would really anoint Bradley as the first sole black news anchor of a television network that's not BET).

We'll see. Nature abhors a vacuum, and there are few vacuums like a network news program without a face. The absence of identity runs counter to people's perception of television as ordered, sensible if not logical, identifiable if not memorable. The sound you hear between now and, oh, say, February 2006 will be the sound of second shoes dropping, as two of the three broadcast network news divisions decide what they're going to be and who they're speaking to.

To invoke the medium's reigning cliche: Stay tuned.
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Image credits: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings: Public domain.

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