Analysis: Relevant nightly news

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Nov. 24, 2004 at 11:32 AM   |   0 comments

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- The announcement that Dan Rather is retiring from the CBS News main anchor chair next March, and next week's departure of Tom Brokaw from the NBC anchor chair, seem to herald a changing of the guard in network TV news -- but Brokaw is convinced that viewers are attracted by the quality of the journalism, not the star power of the anchors.

Brokaw's last regular broadcast on NBC's "Nightly News" is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 1. After that he will turn the anchor desk over to Brian Williams.

In a conference call with entertainment journalists, Brokaw reflected on the changes that have occurred in TV journalism during his time in the profession -- particularly since he succeeded John Chancellor as the main face of NBC News in 1981.

"When I first got involved in news there were really only two planets in the evening sky, CBS and NBC," said Brokaw. "News was seen through the prism of white middle-aged men who lived on the Eastern seaboard."

Now, said Brokaw, because of the Internet, cable news, talk radio and other additions to the media landscape, news consumers have many more choices. However, he said the network evening newscasts are still "the big engines" in the electronic journalism arena.

To be sure, network TV news enjoyed a much higher profile in American culture when Brokaw took over for Chancellor and Rather succeeded the legendary Walter Cronkite a generation ago. However, in a recent interview with United Press International, University of Southern California journalism professor Joe Saltzman said the audience for network news is still very large compared to that for other 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.

Brokaw said the audience for network news is better informed than it once was, because evening newscasts have a broader agenda that includes stories that wouldn't have gotten on the air in "the old days" -- Brokaw's way of referring to the time when he was breaking into news.

"When toxic shock syndrome became a serious health issue for women," he said, "there were still a few men left in the newsroom who said they were not going to say 'menstrual cycle' on the air."

Technological change has made the news business more competitive -- as the proliferation of delivery systems has brought in larger numbers of participants and led to the fragmentation of a news audience that used to coalesce around a relatively small number of news sources.

The news world has also been changed by intensified pressure on news divisions to function as profit centers for the corporations that own and operate them.

Brokaw disagreed with the characterization of network newscasts of a generation ago as loss leaders. Rather, he said, they functioned as something of a "sop to Washington, as it were."

He said the networks used the news divisions as a way to show federal lawmakers and regulators that they were behaving responsibly.

After Brokaw announced that he was leaving the "Nightly News," NBC Universal -- the new name of the network following its merger with Vivendi Universal -- announced that it had signed Brokaw through 2014 to continue on the air, producing and anchoring documentaries.

There has been speculation that Brokaw might be drafted to run for public office -- perhaps even for U.S. president -- but he said he is not interested in running for any office.

"My simple answer to that is, I'm ruining for cover," he said. "I'm not running for office."

Brokaw said he has spent his entire life training as a professional journalist, and the jobs of journalist and politician "can be antithetical positions."

Given the possibility that a catastrophe along the lines of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks could occur at any time, Brokaw was asked whether he has given any thought to what might happen if something like that happened after his last scheduled "Nightly News" telecast -- when Brian Williams will be the lead anchor.

"That has dawned on me, that something could happen of great magnitude, and we'll deal with it if it comes," he said. "I'm sure we can work out some kind of dual role there. You won't have 'Nightly News' as much as you'll have NBC News."

With less than one week to go before he signs off, Brokaw said he was "very much at ease" with his decision and that Williams is "eager to get in this chair" beginning Dec. 2.

But he isn't buying the notion that his departure is any kind of watershed event in the history of TV News -- something that observers also said when Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and other network anchors left the anchor chair when their time came.

"As long as we, at the end of the day, provide a broadcast that is on top of the news, that is relevant to people's lives," he said, "I know there will be a place for the evening news."

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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