The severity of anchor Scott Pelley's on-camera style made him a necessary choice to replace Katie Couric in the anchor chair while the ravages of the financial collapse of 2008 were still being felt.
When he arrived in 2011, he immediately stamped his mark on the agenda at CBS Evening News with a decisive focus on the still-struggling economy. In contrast to the story selection at the nightly newscasts at ABC and NBC, Pelley increased the attention paid to the crippled real estate housing market, to mass unemployment, to the ballooning federal deficit, to Occupy Wall Street.
The limited emotional range of Pelley's on-air persona -- strict and steely, disavowing both charm and irony -- turned out to be entirely appropriate for the straightened national mood. His was a newscast that took serious events seriously -- even though such a decision should properly have been made immediately by the executives at CBS News, as soon as the collapse occurred.
The decision by CBS to install a 60 Minutes correspondent as its Evening News anchor was a signal that the news division would address its weekday ratings woes (in third place among the three broadcast networks in both the morning and the evenings) by trying to extend its successful weekend brand: not only is 60 Minutes a perennial hit on Sunday evenings but CBS is also a powerhouse on Sunday mornings.
Thus, accompanying Pelley's austere style and the hard-edged stories he introduced, under his anchorship CBS Evening News has shifted towards a storytelling style that is not breaking-news dependent (simultaneously ABC World News Tonight under David Muir has moved in the opposite direction).
Pelley's newscast delivers more international reporting than its rivals, especially war reporting, often taking the form of features, vignettes capturing sights and sounds from the front, rather than the incremental new development of the day. Pelley's CBS Evening News looks like 60 Minutes too, relying more on its own proprietary video edited with soundbites, less on graphics, visual effects, found footage, chyrons, and display headlines. If you want to see how CBS News handles breaking news, its 24-hour digital channel performs that chore.
This long-term brand-shifting strategy at CBS News has indeed paid ratings dividends. Unfortunately for Pelley, success has confined itself to the morning timeslot, where Charlie Rose's more serious story selection has made CBS' entry more competitive with Today and Good Morning America than it has ever been. No such luck for the evening newscast, which dwells as doggedly in third place as it has since the final years of Dan Rather's tenure.
It cannot be Scott Pelley's fault that CBS News is so successful on Sundays and so unsuccessful on weekday evenings. The significant difference between the two is that Sunday's programing does not rely on a lead-in local news audience. Enormous damage was done to local news in CBS-TV's affiliate structure 20 years ago: that damage neither Pelley nor Couric nor Tyndall's favorite CBS Evening News anchor -- Bob Schieffer -- has been able to overcome.
That long view aside, it is nevertheless the case that Pelley's removal occurred during the tumultuous first few months of Donald Trump's Presidency. It is a time of heightened interest in political news -- increased subscriptions to legacy newspaper sites, increased audiences for cable news networks -- yet none of the three network nightly newscasts has been able to cash in. Even though all three still have sizable audiences, averaging in total almost 22m viewers every night, they each have smaller audiences than they did this time last year, and the drop-off at CBS has been the steepest.
Clearly the general agenda of the network nightly newscast does not match the taste of the politically-focused, analysis-and-commentary-hungry audience that Donald Trump has stirred up. Pelley attracted attention to himself with his harsh and direct characterizations of Trump in action. Some mistook his fearless refusal to be mealy-mouthed as partisanship. I am on the record in disagreement: "It is not commentary. It is actual reporting." I stand by that assessment. Pelley, remember, was White House correspondent during the impeachment of Bill Clinton: his tone was as strict, as upright, as censorious back then.
The Trump Presidency does certainly not represent normal times for political journalism. Yet, perhaps, censoriousness is too narrow a tone to adopt in response to it. Perhaps that journalistic response should be leavened with bemusement and irony. The financial collapse of 2008 was a more serious crisis, crippling the lives of millions.
In other words, perhaps CBS Evening News needs a little bit less of the influence of 60 Minutes, a little bit more of CBS' Sunday Morning and Face the Nation. After Scott Pelley, why not anchor Jane Pauley with John Dickerson as her sidekick commentator?
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