You'd think it would be transition time at all three major broadcast-network news divisions and for their primary anchors—all of whom have been in their seats since the early 1980s. ABC's Peter Jennings will be 64 this year, and Dan Rather will be 72.
But last week it was the youngest of the Big-Three anchors, Tom Brokaw, at a sprightly 62, who announced plans to lighten his load after the 2004 presidential election and make way for Brian Williams, just 43, to take over as the face of NBC News.
And maybe, that's it.
Sources say that Rather has all but signed a new contract that will keep him at CBS through 2006.
Jennings has been in talks about a new contract for months now, and it's been reported that Disney wants to shave a few million off the reported $11 million or so a year that he's been making under the current deal, set to expire at the end of August.
Neither Disney nor ABC News (nor Jennings) would talk about those issues on the record. But insiders say the network is confident Jennings will re-sign—confident enough that it's already scheduling events and Jennings' specials this fall.
CBS has the opportunity to plan for a transition but apparently isn't—at least not with any great urgency. The new Rather contract doesn't guarantee Rather the role of anchor. But guess what? Neither did the last one.
The current anchors are well matched to their core viewership—advertisers might say, unfortunately so. At CBS, the median age of the CBS Evening News
audience is 59.7 years, according to data compiled by Nielsen Media Research. At ABC, it's 57.5 for World News Tonight; at NBC, it's 56.5 for Nightly News,
which leads the ratings pack.
"But it's always been a 50-plus kind of number and always will be," one analyst says. "That's just the appeal of news."
At the same time, the newscasts' audience shrunk over the past three decades as viewers have been offered more channels to watch. But that's true of just about every network daypart. Just in the last 12 years, the three-network share of audience for the newscasts has dropped 27% from a 59 share to a 43. Still, some 30 million watch every night.
And this season total viewing to the broadcast evening newscasts is up across the board, bucking the trend. The audience to the newscasts grew an average 5%. Paul Slavin, executive producer, ABC World News Tonight, says the audience to his newscast grew more in the second quarter of this year, by a record 12%, than in the fourth quarter of last year when the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks took place.
(Researchers at CNN and Fox News say that now more people get their news from cable than from broadcast, but they don't include broadcast newsmagazines in that calculation, and at most times of the day, cable news audiences are very small.)
With Brokaw gone, Williams will have to step up his game. He's being handed a far bigger audience at Nightly News
—an average 10.8 million viewers versus the little more than 300,000 that have been tuning in to his 8 p.m. newscast on MSNBC this year.
NBC News President Neal Shapiro said The News with Brian Williams
will remain only on CNBC and will be pulled off MSNBC, where it has been airing, probably around July 15. Brokaw will remain at NBC News after leaving the anchor seat to focus on in-depth reporting projects.
The moving of Williams' show off MSNBC allows him more time to spend working on Nightly News, both reporting and filling in for Brokaw, who said the events of Sept. 11 convinced him he was not yet ready to leave the anchor desk permanently. (Brokaw has anchored Nightly News since 1983.)
"I'm here because I couldn't walk away from the story," he said last week.
—Additional reporting by Allison Romano