Saturday, June 11, 2011

CBS Evening News’ makeover in reverse

Morgan Freeman is gone as the Voice of God announcing the broadcast, the James Horner theme music has been mothballed, and the CBS Evening News turned a corner this week back to old and familiar territory with a brand new anchor. The "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley took over for the departed Katie Couric on Monday, with a map of the world from the Cronkite era as the program’s new visual backdrop.

Clearly, it’s back to the future for CBS News; Pelley’s rise to the big chair signals a retooling of the CBS brand, an un-makeover from the flashier Couric style, a return to the stiffer, more straightforward, more vanilla news model that defined CBS News in the years before Couric’s ascension.

But it’s vanilla with a twist: Pelley’s bona fides in hard news, and his long association with “60 Minutes,” could give CBS News an investigative edge in the evening-news format — something, anything to lift the Tiffany Network out of the third-place doldrums it’s been in for years.

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Pelley’s no-nonsense style is naturally reflected in the play of stories reported this week. Most of them amounted to the expected survey of the major news stories of the week: the Anthony Weiner debacle; the wildfires currently razing Arizona; the retirement of Defense Secretary Robert Gates; the problems with the economy; Americans recovering from the ravages of the weather. It’s for the most part the same informational diets we get from the other network news shows.

But Pelley has the ability to break ranks with some of the other newsreaders. Rather than hand off in-depth stories to an investigative reporter (as ABC’s Diane Sawyer does with Brian Ross or NBC’s Brian Williams does with Lisa Myers), Pelley’s already shown he brings his own investigative reporter’s skills to bear.

This week he teased a “60 Minutes” report, an interview with, and a story on the case of Thomas Drake, a former National Security Agency official and whistleblower just cleared of Justice Department charges of violating the Espionage Act — charges brought because Drake dared to reveal to a Baltimore Sun reporter unclassified information about billions of dollars in waste related to an NSA computer system that utterly failed to function properly, despite Drake’s repeated warnings beforehand.

Pelley’s piece, and his role in its reporting, reflects a journalistic range that could make him the most versatile of the broadcast news anchors. That possibility has already been a part of CBS’ promotion of Pelley to the public. One of the ads that aired before Pelley took over asked the question: “What if you could watch a program that had the integrity, reporting and insight of ‘60 Minutes’ every weeknight? Well now you can.”

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If you’re watching, anyway. The early Pelley ratings don’t yet point to any sea-change shift in viewing habits, if one metro market is indicative of anything. Texas television critic Ed Bark, blogging as Uncle Barky, reported that “former Dallas-Fort Worth reporter Pelley's debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News had 117,737 total viewers to rank third in the 5:30 p.m pecking order behind the NBC Nightly News (159,291 viewers) and ABC's World News (124,663 viewers).”

So much for loyalty to the hometown boy.

It’s early yet, and it remains to be seen if Pelley can help the CBS Evening News climb out of its basement digs on his watch. But the changes already evident in the CBS style, and the speed with which the transition from the Couric to Pelley took place, suggest that CBS News managers are comfortable with a rear-view view— and maybe happy about returning to the past, after the fireworks between Katie Couric and legendary producer Rick Kaplan (who exited from CBS before Couric did).

For better or worse, the Pelley Period has begun. Happily, the new anchor has done his best to play down the star aspect of the anchor’s chair, signing off with a reinforcement of his own communal role by speaking “[f]or all of us at CBS News, all around the world." A picture of an in-house monitor taken by The New York Times' Brian Stelter tries to drive that point home even more.

It’s a good team-spirit attitude. Time will tell if it resonates with the team players he needs all around the country.
Image credits: Pelley: AP Photo/CBS, John Filo. CBS logo: © 2011 CBS Inc. CBS News in-house photo: Brian Stelter/The New York Times via TV Newser.

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