Scott Pelley Is on the Clock

Five years after CBS’ '60 Minutes' man took on the 'Evening News' anchor role, the impatient Pelley believes he fronts the best newscast in the business. But getting viewers to see it that way has proven tricky.

Why This Matters

WHY THIS MATTERS
While it’s not the profit center it once was, evening news remains a key branding, and revenue, opportunity for broadcast networks.

Inside the June 6 Issue

When Scott Pelley slid into the CBS Evening News anchor chair on June 6, 2011, succeeding Katie Couric, it was the 60 Minutes correspondent’s first time anchoring a newscast at any level. Five years later, the program remains stuck in third place, but CBS Evening News is growing its Nielsens at a time when ratings points are hard to come by. The broadcast has added more than 1.4 million viewers since Pelley took over, from an average of nearly 6 million viewers to close to 7.4 million, by offering a hard-news program at a time when the line between news and entertainment can often be blurred. CBS Evening News averaged 7.35 million viewers this season, up 2% over last, while tallying its highest ratings in a decade.

Pelley has retained his full-time gig at 60 Minutes—he contributed the most pieces of any correspondent over the past five years, according to CBS News—and the iconic weekly news mag’s influence is readily apparent in the 6:30 p.m. nightly program. “CBS has tried really hard to take the high road, and good for them,” independent news analyst Andrew Tyndall says of Evening News. “The audience they are getting is not proportional to the quality of the product.”

Steve Capus, CBS Evening News executive producer, says it’s not uncommon for the program to lead with a three-to-four-minute enterprise feature. “We’re happy to go longer and do things that befit the CBS News brand,” Capus says. “People come to expect something truly high-caliber from CBS News, and Scott is probably the best evangelist we have of that kind of programming.”

A few weeks before his five-year anchor anniversary, Pelley, 58, spoke with B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about Evening News’ plans to bust out of third place, the perspective-changing advice he got from his daughter and how long he will continue in the dual roles. An edited transcript follows.

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What was morale like when you turned up at Evening News in spring 2011?

There was a sense of optimism, I think. We had burrowed into a pretty deep hole in terms of ratings, and there was just a great sense of change. It was also brought on by Jeff Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, coming over to be chairman of the whole news division; people had a lot of faith, a lot of hope in that. There was going to be a huge revamp and rollout of CBS This Morning, the evening news was going to have a 60 Minutes correspondent for an anchorman and many other things were changing. We were making great hires among producers and correspondents. So everybody thought the sun was rising again on CBS News.

Growth for CBS Evening News ratings has been slow but steady. To what do you attribute it?

My pet theory is that it has a lot to do with the internet world we live in today. Never before has more information been available to people. But at the same time, never before has more bad information been available to people. I think a lot of folks turn to CBS News because it’s a brand they trust. They can watch the Evening News [on TV] or online and get a sense of what really happened in the world today. A good, hard news broadcast that doesn’t waste their time, telling the 12 most important stories of the day in 30 minutes. People who have seen things online at work or at school all day long wonder, did that really happen? They trust Evening News because they know there are serious journalists and serious editors here who are devoted to getting it right.

Related: Reena Ninan Joins CBS News as Correspondent

Is there concern that millennials won’t inherit their parents’ viewing habits regarding evening news?

They certainly won’t inherit their parents’ viewing habits. When I was a very, very young reporter in this business, there were three television networks, as God intended. These days, my kids are growing up in a very different world. What they’re doing now is going online with a question: Did Donald Trump really say that about Muslims? Did the country’s unemployment rate really tick up, and why? When they take a question to the internet, they find CBS News there. That brings them into our brand, into our world, and from there they branch out to 60 Minutes and CBS This Morning and everything else we offer. The route young people take to CBS News is different. But I think all our data, online and broadcasting, indicates they are still finding us. In fact our largest growth area this year has been the 25-54 demo.

You pay attention to ratings…

I do. We don’t make any decision in the Fish Bowl [CBS Evening News’ conference room] based on ratings. To be perfectly honest, it never comes up. Never do we ever make editorial decisions based on, do you think this will appeal to the 25-54 demo, or will this do better with that audience if we lead with this instead of that? It literally never comes up.

Having said that, yeah, I care. This is the best evening news broadcast in America, and we do not deserve be No. 3. It makes me crazy.

We’ve grown 140,000 [total viewers] so far this season to date. (Editor’s note: Evening News’ season-ending gain in May was 120,000 viewers.) What that tells me is, people come to our broadcast and they stay. Almost 1.5 million viewers have joined our broadcast in the last five years. That tells me our journalism is working—people like what they see. If we can just get them to watch, they stick. That’s what we work on doing every day. What we’re doing is working beautifully. I just wish it was working faster.

How has the broadcast evolved?

The broadcast hasn’t evolved as much as the anchorman has evolved! I had never anchored a television news program in my life. The very first program I anchored was the CBS Evening News. I had a lot to learn, a really steep learning curve about how to relate to the audience, how to write [for] this broadcast, because I’d been writing [for] 60 Minutes for a dozen years before that. So I have evolved a great deal; I’ve become much more comfortable in the role. I still do not do as well as I can; I know what to do, yet somehow can’t quite do it. But I’m working at it every day, trying to be the best version of myself, representing, if you will, all the people around the world on the broadcast. That’s really my job—distributing the ball and editing everybody’s copy so everybody can be the very best they can be.

[Starting from] Day 1, we have been the hard news broadcast of record. As I recall that day [June 6, 2011], because it’s very memorable to me, our competitors led with Anthony Weiner, the congressman who posted salacious pictures of himself online. We led with a story out of Afghanistan, about what our troops were up against in the new fighting season with the Taliban. That has been the DNA of the broadcast ever since then, under [former executive producer] Pat Shevlin in those days and even more so under Steve Capus. We want to be the hard news broadcast of record. In this day and age we cannot waste the audience’s time—they will not stand for it. Our hope has been, since the very first day, that the audience watches and says, ‘That was worth my time—I learned something.’

At what point did you finally feel comfortable in the chair?

I think it was about halfway through the broadcast yesterday [laughs]. I think of it as on-the-job training. Journalism, as you know, is the world’s greatest continuing education program. I always look at my work that way, as a learning experience.

After we got through the last presidential campaign and I had traveled to all the primaries as the anchorman, I’d covered Election Night as the anchorman, I’d covered the presidential inauguration as the anchorman—once I got through all those things and had done a great deal of extemporaneous speaking live on-air, I started to think, OK, I can do this. I can get through this day after day.

You remind me as we talk about this, something my daughter told me in 2011, before I started. She would’ve been a teenager. I confided in her, ‘Honey, I don’t know if I can do this.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Dad, you just have to do it!’ [laughs]. Which is about the best advice I ever got from anybody in the industry. I just went out and did it. And by doing it you just start to get it.