NBC has had the top-rated evening news show among the big three networks going on seven years. When Brian Williams takes over for Brokaw in December, he will doubtless get a huge promotional buildup from NBC, intended to minimize as much as possible the potential negative consequences of disrupting the viewing habits of what's left of the network's news audience.
It remains to be seen whether public interest in the event will even begin to rival that which attended the changing of the guard at CBS in 1981, when Dan Rather succeeded Walter Cronkite in the anchor's chair.
That transition received some fairly intense news coverage for a number of reasons, including Cronkite's legendary status as the "most trusted" man in America. CBS further stimulated press coverage with the soap-opera-like nature of its decision to pass over the more senior Roger Mudd and hand the job over to Rather.
As an institution, network TV news enjoyed a higher profile in American culture at that time, reaching a much larger audience and exerting more influence over the national agenda than it does now, as it copes with the mass defection of viewers to other sources of news and information.
Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, told United Press International that although network TV news is attracting fewer viewers, its audience is still very large compared to other news outlets.
"So the influence of network TV news on national affairs is still evident," he said. "But the audience size is not only dwindling, but the audience that remains is less informed than it used to be because the network TV news, in an effort to keep an audience and expand it to a younger audience, does more and more features, entertainment news and other non-news essentials."
Saltzman directs the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project at the Norman Lear Center at USC's Annenberg School for Communication.
The appeal to younger audiences is a commercial imperative, not just for networks, but also for any TV news operation -- including cable and local news. Broadcasters are heavily invested in capital spending on technology and other resources that allow a growing number of electronic journalists to work in the field. They need to derive ever-larger amounts of revenue to satisfy shareholders.
Consequently, the lineup of TV news professionals in our time includes not just Brokaw, Rather and ABC's longtime anchor Peter Jennings, but also such nontraditional figures as Bill O'Reilly, Dennis Miller and Jon Stewart. And that's to say nothing of the thousands of comparatively anonymous, largely interchangeable reporters and anchors who populate TV newsrooms in cities and towns across America.
"TV journalists today are hired because of their looks, their speaking abilities, and even more important, their ability to get on the air in a minute and look as if they have the story under control," said Saltzman.
Network anchors are frequently accused by detractors of being glorified newsreaders, rather than actual journalists. Brokaw's record indicates otherwise.
He won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for conducting the first exclusive one-on-one U.S. interview with Mikhail Gorbachev, and another duPont for a "Dateline NBC" documentary on race relations in America's suburbs. He reported from the scene the night the Berlin Wall fell and was the first network evening news anchor to report from the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Saltzman said that while any experienced anchor can do a good job from the studio, the public has come to trust certain personalities -- and Brokaw's departure may help further drive down network TV news viewing.
"It really doesn't matter how much the anchor actually influences the news," he said. "It's the public perception that counts, and here the loss of Brokaw or Rather or Jennings could possibly further erode the national network news audience."
Of all the changes in network TV news since the early '80s, perhaps none is more significant than the blurring -- if not the obliteration -- of the line between the news and entertainment divisions at the networks.
Jeff Zucker -- who rose from producer of the "Today" show to President of NBC Entertainment -- expanded his command at the network last December to include its news and cable operations, including CNBC and MSNBC. Zucker's consolidation of authority, like the similar consolidation executed by the late Roone Arledge at ABC, stands out as another vivid reminder that network news -- which formerly independent networks once considered immune from commercial pressure -- is now, first and foremost, a profit center for the conglomerates that dominate U.S. media.
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