Friday, January 13, 2012

Tearing down the walls at ‘CBS Evening News’

In December, on the occasion of the six-month anniversary of the “CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley,” Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote a piece that sought to put Pelley’s newsroom ascension in a symbolic frame: “For decades, the office of the “CBS Evening News” anchor has been situated up a short staircase from the newscast’s open newsroom and anchor set. From that perch, the office has a view of the newsroom, like a balcony seat at a theater.

“But when [Katie] Couric had the anchor job, between 2006 and 2011, visitors noticed that the wall of windows in the office had been covered up, leaving her without a view. It served as a handy metaphor for the disconnect between Ms. Couric and some of the CBS News staff.

“But the view is wide open once again.”

There’s some dispute about the accuracy of Stelter’s reporting. Commenting in The Times on the Stelter story, Brian Goldsmith of Palo Alto, Calif., begs to differ: “I was a producer at CBS News when Katie Couric was anchor. It is simply untrue that her windows were covered up. CBS was renovating parts of the electrical operations and put up some temporary plastic scaffolding around that balcony.”

But whether Stelter’s tale of a cultural breakthrough within the literal walls of CBS News is true or not, there’s been no breakthrough in changing the habits and tastes of network news viewers — a fact that’s kept the “CBS Evening News” in the vexing position of being locked in third place, according to the ratings, despite the rise of one of the best investigative reporters on broadcast TV.

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Pelley took the helm of the CBS Evening News on June 6, replacing Couric, previously the spirited, peripatetic fixture of morning programming for years (at rival NBC’s “Today” show). After presiding over a level of fireworks that the bespoke-tailored, button-down CBS tradition wasn’t ready for, Couric left the CBS News anchor post in May, opening the door for Pelley to take the anchor desk.

“Clearly, it’s back to the future for CBS News,” I wrote last June. “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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Old habits die hard, and apparently for broadcast news viewers, they don’t die at all. That’s the takeaway from a survey of ratings reports for the three broadcast networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — between the first week of June 2011, when Pelley took over, and the first week of this year. Despite Pelley’s takeover at “CBS Evening News,” consumer viewing habits haven’t changed much — and haven’t changed enough to shift the 1-2-3 order of preference … with CBS in third place, continuing an accidental tradition that started in the Couric era.

Despite making periodic gains in total viewers and in viewers in the coveted 25-54 age demographic, CBS started 2012 with that firm lock on third place – this despite “NBC Nightly News” shedding a million viewers from the same time in 2011, and still holding down first place.

And it’s been that way from the start of Pelley’s “Evening News.” His first week, the week of June 6, Pelley lured about 5.7 million viewers to the CBS broadcast, third behind ABC “World News With Diane Sawyer” and the “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.”

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During the heat of August, Pelley’s “Evening News” had fat, impressive numbers. A rash of events — from the fatal ouster of Gaddafi in Libya to the impact of Hurricane Irene as it marched up the Eastern Seaboard — conspired to create a momentary viewer windfall. All three evening-news programs pulled in a combined average of 22.56 million total viewers, but the Pelley “CBS Evening News” gained the most that month: 24 percent among total viewers.

But that good news was tempered by the bad: Since then, the “CBS Evening News” hasn’t been able to punch out of third place despite the bona fides that anchor Pelley also brings to the table as a reporter for CBS’ “60 Minutes” (a role he still plays from time to time). In August, “NBC Nightly News” would celebrate its 100th straight week in the No. 1 spot in evening broadcast news.

The truth is, the problem for CBS News isn’t specific to CBS. Collectively, the evening broadcast news experience runs up against shifts in consumer viewing habits and schedules; the evolution of DVR and consumer electronic technology; the rise of social media; and the relentless demands facing a nation of millions of generally oversubscribed lives.

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Pelley’s clipped, procedural, by-the-book on-air delivery doesn’t help. If some of Couric’s story choices and her on-air demeanor were too feature-ish by half, Pelley’s dialed back the personality factor to the point that it barely registers. Pelley deserves our respect, no question, but there’s not much benevolence to the man in the CBS News anchor chair. There’s nobody to root for, nobody to like right now. He’s like being told to eat your peas.

That may be Scott Pelley’s biggest challenge: in what’s shaping up to be a momentous political year, he’s yet to find that elusive balance of the personality that the times and culture demand, and the Tiffany polish and Murrowed reserve that’s baked into the CBS News broadcast model. And with CBS lagging in making inroads in the cable space (despite occasional tie-ups with CNN), Pelley in some respects is fighting with analog in a digital world.

Whether the story of walls-become-windows in the CBS News studio is true or not, Pelley’s seven-month-old iteration of the “CBS Evening News” seems to be still under construction. The hard work of tearing down viewers’ established ideas of what CBS News is today is just getting started.

Image credits: Pelley: CBS/John Filo. CBS eye: © 2012 CBS Inc. Evening news ratings snapshots:

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