The CBS welcome of Scott Pelley to the “Evening News” anchor desk this week was remarkably quiet. The understated launching is quite a contrast to the hoopla that surrounded the arrival of Pelley’s predecessor, Katie Couric, five years ago. Clearly, this change in approach is a sign that CBS is attempting to un-Katie its signature news broadcast.
Couric arrived at CBS after a lengthy and public courtship. CBS heavily promoted Couric for weeks before she did her first show, with mega-buys of publicity, focus groups and a listening tour. CBS premiered Couric during September, at the start of the fall television season when stakes are high and ratings matter most. Couric’s ratings were great — for a few days. After initially drawing more than 10 million viewers a night, the show saw viewers bolt, and CBS fell back to a distant third place within two months, never to challenge NBC or ABC again for the duration of Katie’s contract.
Evening news viewers never responded to Couric’s morning, chatty personality. CBS executives didn’t help matters by frequent, public analysis of Couric’s struggles and rationalizing away the slumping ratings. CBS chief executive Les Moonves was just one of the apologists who blamed Couric’s troubles on sexism by viewers. Couric herself once criticized local CBS affiliates for providing weak lead-ins to her show, apparently oblivious to her own issues.
More than sexism or affiliate programming, however, Couric suffered from audience perceptions that she was politically biased. Rasmussen Research polls show Couric is perceived by viewers to be liberal. Nearly four times as many respondents consider Couric a liberal as opposed to a conservative. That’s no big deal when you are doing talk radio or hosting a cable news opinion show, but it is a problem when trying to be the face of a network’s flagship news program.
Pelley worked in local news in his home state of Texas before joining CBS more than 20 years ago. He has covered big stories domestically and internationally. He covered wars and served as chief White House correspondent. He racked up awards doing long-form reporting for “60 Minutes.” The contrast to Couric is quite clear, and no doubt intended to un-Couric the CBS newsroom.
Pelley got this anchor job because of his reporting background, not because he is a personality. That was CBS’ mistake when hiring Couric. The CBS suits thought a charismatic personality on the anchor desk could sufficiently carry a newscast. When viewers tune in for news, however, they want to see a reporter. Pelley is that. Nobody has described him as “perky.”
Pelley’s new role as managing editor of the “Evening News” will be more critical than how well he does narrating lead-ins to other reporters’ stories. More telling than how well he reads a teleprompter will be which stories he puts in the lineup and how those stories are approached. The audience will respond if serious news gets done with a proper sense of evenhandedness. The audience never sensed that quality from Couric.
Changing the newscast’s image will take time, so CBS should not expect an immediate ratings jump. Pelley is lucky to arrive with nowhere to go but up. He has several months to get the broadcast situated before the 2012 election cycle revs up.
The Big Three network newscasts now get less than 25 million viewers a night, down 20 percent from 10 years ago. In 1980, 50 million people watched a network newscast each night. The network newscasts remain important, however, because they set the reporting agendas for many other venues online, in print and on local broadcasts. The nation needs these newscasts to have newsworthy stories covered sensibly.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”