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Anchor Wars: Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw

Inside the heated evening news ratings race of the 1980s

Dan RatherDan Rather

Dan Rather

CBS via Getty Images

“I know a lot of people think I’ve got the CBS eye tattooed on my ass,” Dan Rather says, conceding his public image as a tough, hard-charging telejournalist. Yet during the day, as he prepares for The CBS Evening News, Rather frequently slips out the back door of the CBS Broadcast Center to the playground of the New York City housing project on West Fifty-sixth Street, taking the air, contemplating life, as immobile as one of the park winos. The real Dan Rather, he says, “simply loves the news.”

A few clicks of the dial away from Rather, ABC’s World News Tonight presents the modish, immaculately groomed Peter Jennings, the very image of the diplomatic correspondent with his English-cut suits and mid-Atlantic diction. Off camera, however, Jennings is tieless, hustling on the phone for stories, dragging on one of the scores of cigarettes he smokes daily, his voice revved up to talk-radio speed. He says he sometimes gets so emotional about stories that he once considered quitting TV “to work for the refugees.” His wife, Kati Marton (the third Mrs. Jennings), says the austere man on the screen isn’t the man she sees at home.

On NBC Nightly News, Tom Brokaw looks like just another pretty face on local TV in, say, San Jose or Phoenix. Around the NBC news room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, however, a co-worker has rechristened Brokaw “Duncan the Wonder Horse” — in tribute to his prodigious work habits. In his office, Brokaw keeps hand-exercise grips to fight down his tensions; privately, Brokaw is the one with the tattoo, the confrontational style. “I am formed,” Brokaw says, in what might be considered a reference to one or possibly both of his rivals. “I don’t reinvent myself every night.”

Who says the camera doesn’t lie?

The common perception is that what we see is what we get, that we know our anchormen, with their instantly recognizable faces, that we can call them by their first names: Dan, Peter and Tom. Each week night they come into nearly 40 million American households to deliver the news, familiar guests at our hearth: three white, prosperous, middle-aged males — Rather is 55, Jennings, 48, Brokaw, 46 — each highly qualified for his work. Even their programs are outwardly similar. After time for commercials is subtracted, each has 22 minutes of stories and the same general rotation of the news — actually, “the olds.” Invariably, it’s Washington (White House and Congress), War Zones (South Africa and the Middle East), American Heartland (tornadoes, drought, farm foreclosures, 30-car pileups on California highways) and Human or Animal Interest (the boy who fell through the ice, the baby born to the brain-dead mom, Bambi’s mother and lost whales).

These rhetorical models have apparently grown so much alike that the viewing public itself gives them almost identical attention. The biggest news about the evening news right now is that the holy writ of the Nielsen ratings shows Rather, Jennings and Brokaw each commanding an audience of about 15 million people, give or take a million or two. Looking at Dan, Peter and Tom and their three evening broadcasts, it’s possible to conclude, after Gertrude Stein, that the news is the news is the news.

It’s possible, but it would be wrong. In fact, Dan, Peter and Tom, and their programs, are distinct from one another — as distinct as their on-air personas are from the men playing the anchor’s role. What we get isn’t what we see. It’s more intriguing. And the audience, subconsciously, knows this. Viewers have read the implicit iconography of the evening news and aligned themselves in accordance with their understanding of the subtext of each man and program. The proof is all there in the ratings books. Demographics never lie.

The iconographic Dan, of course, is country & western, appealing to an older, idealized America of the imagination. Peter is urban, projecting an image with which a more youthful market can identify. Tom positions himself somewhere in between, in the middle — an avatar of suburban values. Together they form a three-way mirror of America that tells us where the country is today — vide, the tightened race among the triple demographies of the news. They also tell us where the country is heading tomorrow, as the weight of viewer numbers shifts toward one or another end of the scale.

I am the keeper of the flame of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Douglas Edwards. — Dan Rather

Television news people pay lip service to Edward R. Murrow as their Founding Father. He’s honored for his wartime radio broadcasts (‘This…is…London”) and his gritty CBS special reports and documentaries. They don’t make ’em anymore like the program that took on Senator Joe McCarthy or “Harvest of Shame,” the documentary that alerted comfortable viewers to the plight of migrant workers. In fact, they don’t make ’em at all; 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the other TV magazine shows normally offer more infotainment than exposé or social consciousness. The network evening news is where the action is now, both for advertising dollars and journalistic prestige. Curiously, Murrow never was a TV news anchor and served only briefly, and poorly, as part of the CBS anchor team during the conventions of the Fifties and early Sixties. There has been only one proto-anchor, and his name is Walter Cronkite. The word “anchorman,” in fact, was first applied to Cronkite at the 1952 conventions to connote the strongest performer, the man you’d want running the final leg of a relay race.

TV news is divided into two historic periods — the years B.C., Before Cronkite, and the modern era. From the late Sixties until he stepped aside in 1981 — after a sharp shove — Cronkite presided over the top-rated program. He was, first of all, a consensus figure: he came not only out of a simpler America but also out of the middle of the middle — born in 1916 in St. Joseph, Missouri, the son of a dentist. Neither North nor South, East nor West, rich nor poor. His journalistic training was in the objective mode of the wire services; Murrow hired him from United Press during the war.

Cronkite wasn’t always Cronkite. He stumbled badly in the ratings at the 1960 and ’64 conventions; the early and mid-Sixties belonged instead to NBC’s Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Huntley was a rugged native of the Big Sky country who rode in from a California station and bore a certain physical resemblance to Murrow; Brinkley was from Back East, a Washington reporter who cast a cold eye on politics. The Huntley-Brinkley bicoastal ticket won over the news audience, with Cronkite in the middle distance behind them. ABC, for all practical purposes, was nowhere, a weak, insubstantial news organization with a minuscule constituency: the Almost Broadcasting Company. In 1965, desperate to compete and willing to try anything, ABC put forward a reporter named Peter Jennings as its evening-news anchor. Though Jennings was twenty-six at the time, he had already worked as an anchor in his native Canada. But the ABC audience, the ABC staff, the ABC affiliates, and the critics, all judged Jennings too young and too pretty for the job; after only two years he was back in the ranks of correspondents.

Cronkite versus Huntley-Brinkley was stage center, ABC the sideshow. Huntley-Brinkley, while not exactly a novelty act, did well enough as long as the news could be lightened up. But by the end of the 1960s, a couple of million people had dialed out NBC and switched to CBS, an unprecedented mass-media movement. The times demanded gravity. A lot of Sixties viewers were older folks. News watching, like voting in elections, has traditionally been a middle-aged activity, and CBS’s prime-time entertainment schedule appealed to older rural and small-town audiences. This was the era of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw. But Cronkite himself also pulled in viewers, for this was also the time of Vietnam abroad and political assassination and racial insurrection at home. Hippies, yippies, strung-out grunts, blacks, rock & rollers, longhairs, women’s liberationists – all seemed to be shouting from the screen. Cronkite’s modulated, “objective” demeanor calmed the fears of the mainly older, white, male, propertied viewing classes. When the Kennedys and King were shot, when the body bags came home, when the Chicago police rioted and when the astronauts got stuck in orbit, it was Cronkite who anchored the nation’s emotions in a way Huntley-Brinkley could never quite do. He had authority; in the phrase of Richard Wald, now vice-president of ABC News, Cronkite assumed the form of a paraclete, “a messenger of God.” When Cronkite returned from a visit to Vietnam in 1968 and expressed doubt about Lyndon Johnson’s war, LBJ concluded that having lost Cronkite, he had lost the country and decided not to run for reelection.

The Cronkite consensus began to come apart as the mass audience became younger and less middle-class and white. The street children and urban rioters of the 1960s joined the settled, TV-watching population of the 1970s. Fred Silverman, the man with the golden gut — his own sensibilities supposedly wired to contemporary pop-cult tastes — was in charge at ABC. His string of highly successful comedy shows and macho action entertainment — Laverne & Shirley, Happy Days, Starsky and Hutch — brought younger viewers and especially women to ABC. The popularity of the ABC shows boosted ABC News: at the beginning of the 1970s, less than two-thirds of the 168 ABC-affiliated stations “cleared” the ABC evening news — took the network feed and put it on their air. By the beginning of the 1980s, virtually all of the 200 or so affiliates were clearing it, putting the program on as many “newsstands” as its CBS and NBC counterparts.

By this time, too, the ABC product on the stands had begun to show off a more contemporary look and zippier, computer-generated graphics. Roone Arledge had taken over ABC News. At ABC Sports in the Sixties and early Seventies, Arledge had helped create the modern TV sports era with instant replays, slo-mo, and isolated cameras and honey shots (three-second shots of good-looking women in the stands). He was Captain Success, and he applied the new techniques to ABC News. Bankrolled by Silverman’s dollars, Arledge spent money on the news as if it were…a sport. The sports division had paid out hundreds of millions for the rights to pro football and the Olympics. What was a million more here or there for on-air news talent?

In the Nixon years, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw were White House reporters for their networks, each earning no more than $125,000 a year. By 1979, they were both working in New York, Rather for 60 Minutes, Brokaw for Today, each earning perhaps $300,000, when Arledge offered Rather $2 million a year (plus a role in everything at ABC News from anchoring the evening news to hiring and firing staff). Cronkite was earning half that. When Arledge couldn’t bag Rather, the sportsman went after Brokaw, who also turned him down. To keep Rather’s and Brokaw’s loyalty, CBS and NBC had to play — and pay — in Arledge’s league. Rather got a pledge that Cronkite would be hoisted as the CBS anchor — and a 10-year contract that guaranteed him nearly $25 million. Earlier this year, insiders say, his contract was sweetened again. Rather is now the $3 million-a-year man. Brokaw’s Arledge-proof salary is around $1.8 million annually.

I’ve learned to live with the money, the celebrity, the criticism. They come with the territory. — Dan Rather

For almost five years, Rather and his CBS Evening News have been number one, the program the others have tried to overtake. He’s the front page of CBS News and, like Jennings and Brokaw, is worth every penny of his salary. If his presence can contribute to a shift of just one rating point in the Nielsen numbers, from, say, a 10 to an 11, it can mean as much as $15 million in what CBS can charge advertisers.

Rather doesn’t make the first nights, the power meals, the New York scene. He claims to be happiest lunching on a tuna-fish sandwich at the news desk in the Broadcast Center with the evening-news staff, working on the story lineup. His daily prayer is, he says, “God, give me one more day at my work.”

Some of this is the kind of “log cabinizing” that politicians do: self-serving stories showcasing their modest beginnings, diligent work habits and simple desires. Rather today is a sophisticated journalist who seems to be consciously gearing down his high-intensity persona. A good performer, he’s careful not to appear too fast for the room he’s working. Yet “the book” on Rather, to borrow a Ratherism, does begin in hardscrabble East Texas. He remembers that Depression-era kids like himself aspired, at most, to be high-school football coaches or airline pilots (in fact, Rather’s younger brother is a high-school principal, and his sister is a high-school teacher).

Rather’s critics accuse him of constantly redefining himself, pulling on or peeling off sweaters at a tremor in the ratings, changing the color of his hair from black to gray to black again (a charge Rather denies). “Who is that guy inside the suit anyway?” asks a CBS colleague. “The one running around here saying, ‘I’m Dan Rather.’ ” Rather says he knows who he is: “I am a reporter who cares about people.” In his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, he describes his father, Irwin “Rags” Rather, as an oil-pipeline worker — a ditch digger — and his mother as a waitress. As a young man, Rather got down into the trenches himself — humbling up still more his humble past.

One of the longstanding indictments of network news — thunder from the left and the right — is that the decision makers are an elite, cut off from “the people,” hooked to their closed-circuit communications and their regular morning diets of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (more input from people just like them). The state-of-the-art facility deep inside the CBS Broadcast Center where Rather and his producers determine the nightly play of stories is held up as symbolic of their isolation, as are the similar rooms at ABC and NBC across Manhattan. The conference rooms look out on news desks and internal monitors, not the “real world.”

But Rather claims to have a different perspective. “If you’ve come from where I’ve come from,” he says, “standing in a ditch, shovel in hand, working with your back, that’s a never-to-be-forgotten experience. No matter how high you rise, you can never get away from those formative years….” Then leaning forward, he smiles. “You’re thinking to yourself, ‘There goes the bullshit part….’ ” You are, in fact, wondering if Rather is fusing his life with Rags’s, but then he adds, “As Henry Kissinger once said, ‘And it has the added advantage of being true.’ “

There it is: populism with an intellectual face. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s as good a summary as there is of what The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather is all about. The CBS broadcast is the People’s Republic of Rather. Rather didn’t create this state of mind by himself. He had the help of Van Gordon Sauter, the president of CBS News. When the occasion demands, Sauter can put up his own log cabins. He’s also from Small Town, U.S.A. — Middletown, Ohio, no less. His father was a fireman, his mother a saleslady. He went to Ohio University, studied journalism at the University of Missouri, worked on papers in Detroit and Chicago. Sauter knows the territory and when to talk from the heartland. While Arledge is running with the beautiful weekend people in the Hamptons, Sauter says, “I’m fishing in the woods of Connecticut.”

When Rather took over the Evening News in 1981, and the ratings sagged a bit, it was Sauter who figured out the problem. “Dan was doing the CBS Evening News — with Walter Cronkite,” he says. CBS’s coverage was still Cronkite’s straight-ahead wire-service report — headlines, a lot of them from congressional hearings, told with pictures. Rather and Sauter began taking the Evening News out of Washington and into the country. They wanted stories for television, built around people and their emotions.

Part of this change was generational, the slaying of the father Cronkite and the older executives who had worked with him and shared his print background. Cronkite wasn’t in a hurry to leave, and the memory of the changes still rankles (asked for his opinion of today’s CBS news programs in a recent Washington Post interview, Cronkite expressed admiration for Entertainment Tonight). The Rather-Sauter regime promoted producers whose sole experience was in television, who liked video and worked to achieve visual epiphanies or, in Sauter’s phrase, “moments.” But this change also involved the Reagan Eighties gestalt: antigovernment and antipolitics; Miller Time instead of hearings time; This Broadcast’s for You evocations of ordinary people’s lives; and the community of feelings rather than the parade of authority (including the old authority figure of the anchor).

This doesn’t mean the Rather news is an upbeat, Reaganite “shining city on a hill” vision, or the fluff of airhead local news. A few weeks ago, when The CBS Evening News reported that USX was shutting down mills and that LTV was going into Chapter 11, Rather quickly moved from the institutional report of Big Steel in trouble to the little people’s story of how the closings are affecting one disabled worker, depriving him of medical benefits. “Someone loses his or her job,” Rather says, “and I want to show what’s being said and felt.”

More than sixty years ago, the philosopher George Herbert Mead looked at the newspapers of his day and suggested that there were two models of journalism: informational news based on fact (e.g., Cronkite) and story news intended to create an aesthetic experience and help people relate events to their own lives — the Rather show. “The olds” as much as “the news.”

I can always go back to being a reporter. I’m not too big for it. – Peter Jennings

It’s the 3:45 news meeting, and Peter Jennings is going through the World News Tonight lineup with seven producers and news editors, six men and one woman; their average age appears to be 35, much like that of a significant percentage of the audience for World News Tonight. Bill Lord, the executive producer of WNT, is on vacation, and Jennings, who has been the sole anchor for the program since September 1983, is clearly running the meeting. But even when Lord is there, Jennings (like Rather and Brokaw) still has the anchor’s ultimate, though rarely if ever used, power to say, I don’t want to do that piece.

Jennings and Lord both agree that the toughest workdays are those when there’s too much news and those when there’s not enough. This day, July 28th, 1986, is shaping up as one of the former; pieces will have to be held, given away (to Good Morning America, for example) or simply killed. Jennings is wired. The producers offer up stories, and he swings hard at them. NASA will be making available a tape transcript of the Challenger crew’s last moments — weeks, someone says, after agency officials said no such tape existed. Another producer smells cover-up or, at the least, foul-up. Jennings worries: “Is it too ghoulish? I don’t want to be ghoulish.” Next: The LTV steel plant in East Chicago is shutting down, but no one can quite place the town. Jennings remembers. It’s in Indiana, the old home town of the late Frank Reynolds — before Jennings, ABC’s great anchor hope of the post-Cronkite era.

Jennings wants to know, “How sick is Ella Fitzgerald? Do we have a piece ready?” The singer is resting comfortably in the hospital, but it was her heart; an obit should be put together and banked. One producer pitches a yarn about a tiger supposedly loose in the wilds of Pennsylvania. “I can see the picture now,” says Jennings. “A bunch of highway patrolmen, guns drawn, peering down the road.” No sale. From Washington, the bureau is offering congressional hearings on crack. Jennings makes a prediction: “Not a day will go by for the rest of the year without some politician wanting to get on the air with his statement about a ‘crackdown on crack….’ ” No dissent.

The rest of the meeting goes back and forth on what to do about two features, each qualifying as light show-enders. TV news likes to send the audience off to prime time, and to the advertisers’ messages, with a pleasant emotional buzz — the news permitting, naturally. Jennings has to choose between the opening round of the Karpov-Kasparov chess match in London and the story of Mi Dori, the 14-year-old violin prodigy whose remarkable concert with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood made the front page of The New York Times that morning. The concert was two nights earlier, and no network crews were present. Still worse, the producers are groping to remember the name of the town near Tanglewood. But CBS and NBC read the Times, too. Hold the chess piece.

The meeting over, Jennings places a call to Bernstein, rolls copy paper into his Olympia manual, picks up the phone (“Hello! Maestro! How very nice of you to talk to me…”) and proceeds to play catch-up on the story, just one more street reporter getting a fill from a news source. Later Jennings puts in some work on his regular Friday-night feature, “Person of the Week,” a personality-centered piece intended to engage younger viewers who normally dial out the news on the weekend. “Person” tends to be upbeat, a tribute to national leaders (through the first 17 weeks of the series, only one genuine bad guy made the roster — Jackie Presser of the Teamsters).

That night Jennings leads with the NASA tape, as do Rather and Brokaw. There’s a straightforward piece from Washington on plans for a Reagan-Gorbachev summit, mostly stenographic reporting of official positions. The steel story is also aired, as is a Special Assignment segment on crack by reporter John Quinones. The visual style of this package comes right out of Miami Vice, with editing certain to have its greatest impact on what the market researchers call the urban-core audience. There are quick-cut shots of SWAT teams tearing into “crack houses,” knocking down doors that are open anyway; lots of black and brown people shoved up against the wall or wrestled to the ground; police officials mouthing lines about addict “wildcats” loose in the streets; preposterous statements about New York City having “more crack stops than bus stops.” No one challenges the official story. One sequence shows viewers the equipment needed to get in on all the excitement — a Maxwell House coffee can, tin-foil lid, cigarette lighter, crack and you. The whole meringue is topped with a closer shot, in tight, of an eight-year-old, the next crack user, we are to conclude…certainly, if he follows the ABCs of it all.

Crack hype infects all three networks, and overall that night’s program was not typical. Various content analyses show that WNT usually does more foreign news than its rivals. (Predictably, CBS does the fewest foreign pieces, and NBC’s international-story content falls in the middle.) The Jennings news reflects the Jennings strengths, and also his basic character, as distinct from his image. Jennings’s vaguely Oxonian urbanity is acquired. Though no ditch digger (his father was an executive of the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company), Jennings is a high-school dropout.

Jennings’s real school has been the road. After his brief run on the evening news in the mid-1960s, Jennings worked abroad for ABC on and off for the next 15 years. He helped open the ABC office in Beirut — the first American TV news bureau in the Arab world. He interviewed Arafat, covered Khomeini’s return to Iran and Sadat’s assassination. “Jennings owned the Arab story,” according to his friend Av Westin, the veteran ABC News executive. Some American-Jewish groups used to claim that the Arab cause owned Jennings. But the charge is heard less and less now and was ill-founded in the first place.

ABC’s rivals hold that Jennings is “too intellectual.” Surely, no one would mistake WNT for the CBC News, much less Le Monde. But Jennings is sensitive to any accusations that the program is not sufficiently “American.” His Canadian citizenship doesn’t seem to bother his viewers — out of the 900 letters he got after ABC’s Liberty Weekend coverage, he says that almost all complimented him and that only three complained about a non-American anchoring the broadcasts. Nevertheless, Jennings works hard cultivating the American beat, just as hard as he works at his Mr. Cool image: “Precisely because I was out of the U.S. for so long, I didn’t take anything for a given after I came back.” It was Jennings who first suggested a regular American Portrait for WNT; Arledge took this basically leaden idea and turned it into the glitzy Person of the Week.

The early Jennings played James Darren to Sandra Dee: when ABC made him an anchor the first time, it was looking to attract, he acknowledges, a “Gidget-type audience.” Abroad, Jennings filled out. After the failed marriages and the glamorous life of a correspondent prowling the world, he now follows a more settled routine with his wife and their two small children in a yup-scale Manhattan apartment. He has circles under his eyes and a developing bald spot at the top of his head (not visible on camera). As Av Westin says, “The sharper edges of the ‘Brit’ image have been eroded….He’s one of us folks now.” The Americanization of Peter has proceeded so well that respondents to a January 1986 Gallup Poll ranked Jennings, among all news people, second only to the gone-but-not-forgotten Cronkite in that most important of all anchor qualities — “believability.”

I’ve been doing this almost all my life. This is me. – Tom Brokaw

One critic ticks off Tom Brokaw by referring to his “button nose.” Others have judged Brokaw and the NBC Nightly News to be “bland,” “neutral,” “objective.” When I suggested to Brokaw that after watching several weeks of all three news programs, a group of us had placed him in the middle between the emotional, populist Rather and the suave, establishment Jennings, Brokaw hardly paused before he said, “I’ll take it.”

A certain degree of white-collar caution has always characterized Brokaw’s organization. The great Huntley-Brinkley team, praised so much for its instant chemistry, was an accident of the laboratory, the byproduct of negotiations between two rival executive forces each pushing its own man. Twenty years later Brokaw himself moved up to the anchor job as a kind of compromise between, on the one side, traditionalist factions loyal to the esteemed veteran John Chancellor and, on the other, more opportunistic, showbiz-minded executives willing to try something completely different to catch CBS — namely, the flash-and-dash communicator Tom Snyder. With the warring factions, Brokaw remembers, came “revolving-door leadership.” In the 10 years he has been in New York, first with Today and now with the Nightly News, Brokaw has worked for five different NBC News presidents.

Currently, stability reigns at NBC News, much of it brought by the competent, quiet leadership of news-division president Lawrence K. Grossman. On the whole, NBC is the nice, warm, “tasteful” network. Its biggest prime-time hit is about a family, Bill Cosby’s made-for-TV brood. On NBC’s morning success, the Today show, Jane Pauley is on (real-life) maternity leave. Last December Tom Brokaw was the host of the NBC Christmas special that ended with him and Nancy Reagan, NBC’s Leading Man and the nation’s First Lady, singing Christmas carols on camera.

Like Rather, Tom Brokaw came out of the heartland — the terrain, though, of the contemporary split-level, not the log cabin. He grew up in South Dakota, where his father was a construction foreman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the kind of job that would have made him Rags Rather’s supervisor. Brokaw was very much the boy next door who marries his high-school sweetheart. Her name was Meredith Auld, and she was the kind of girl who wins the Miss South Dakota title in the Miss America competition.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, when he was working for KNBC in Los Angeles, the Brokaws ran with the well-to-do Southern California crowd; he still serves on the board of the Norton Simon museum of art in Pasadena. He also ran on his own, apart from any pack. He took up running, he remembers, long before it became a craze, slogging through the L.A. streets in high tops, a lone runner in a town on wheels. Arriving in New York, neither Brokaw broke stride. He became a friend of Thornton Bradshaw, chairman of RCA, the parent company of NBC. She started Penny Whistle, now a chain of four children’s toy stores in Manhattan and the Hamptons, where one birthday balloon sells for $1.50 — without the air (“That’s her business,” he says amiably, “not mine”).

Brokaw competed with Rather once before, and lost, when both were covering the Nixon White House in the Final Days of Watergate — a time of some of Rather’s most memorable work. In the current round of competition, Brokaw has the momentum. His program has gained about 2 million viewers in the last two years, while Rather has lost at least 400,000, giving them both about 15 million nightly watchers. It’s necessary to say “almost” and “about,” because TV ratings, unlike the circulation figures for newspapers and magazines, are notoriously slippery. Ratings books come with asterisks like measles. There are other services besides Nielsen — Arbitron, for example — as well as the networks’ own research, and the numbers often differ.

Then, too, ratings are affected by everything but the phases of the moon (and some have wondered about their influence). There’s the Wheel of Fortune factor: some local stations displaying Vanna White in late-afternoon syndication pull large audiences away from the network news on other channels. There’s also the role of so-called lead-in shows; for example, the ABC news programs in Chicago and Philadelphia, two of the top six TV markets, have very strong circulations, helping build audiences for World News Tonight. Finally, there’s NBC’s successful Today in the morning and the Cosby megahit in prime time; both may keep certain kinds of viewers tuned to NBC, in line with the TV law of inertia — a dial set at rest remains at rest unless acted upon by an outside intelligence. Superfinally, ratings can be just a matter of how the ball bounces, literally. West Coast basketball play-off games and key baseball match-ups have preempted network news shows in the last several months and decisively changed the ratings numbers. As Brokaw says, “There is no fixed formula for ratings success. I’ve been down, and I’ve been up….” The one reasonably sure factor is the trend line. Brokaw is up.

Why? Check the correct answer and step up and claim a network-news presidency, paying in the low seven figures. Brokaw takes the moderate, sensible view that ratings success comes from a combination of elements — all of the above, but also the substance of the newscasts. For example, Robert Bazell on NBC has done the best reporting on AIDS, while Allen Pizzey on CBS has dominated the South African coverage.

And then there’s the anchor. The personality of the leading man is perhaps the only factor the evening-news producers can control. The White House and other officials determine when news is made; the affiliates and station owners are in charge of lead-ins and lead-outs; geography and neighboring buildings can affect the clarity of the picture. But the anchor allows for enterprise. As Brokaw says, “People watch people. They’ll watch me as long as I deliver the kind of news they want and need.”

Brokaw’s kind of news is centrist. NBC Nightly News, for example, has been doing the farm-crisis story along with the others. But in search of its own angle, NBC went to the county seat of Cedar County, Nebraska, to see how the shoemaker and other small businesses serving the farmers were being affected. The people who look to NBC for news, according to Brokaw, “live in Walla Walla and El Paso, and they don’t get The New York Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal.” If Rather’s heart has gone back to Texas and the deep country and Jennings’s has moved toward the urban centers, Brokaw talks to the main streets of small cities and commuter towns, where the country’s political and consumer power increasingly resides. Of course, TV news is a mass activity engaging large demographic groups all across a broad population. But just as clearly, each of the three anchors speaks to special constituencies. Right now Brokaw’s growing audience compels our attention.

Three years ago, Brokaw gave an interview to Mother Jones, the left-radical magazine published monthly in San Francisco. Brokaw had just been named the sole anchor of the Nightly News, amid some sniping that he was just another pretty boy. “I wanted to demonstrate that I had been around politically,” he recalls. Brokaw waded into the interview with some sharp comments about Reagan, whose values, he said, were “pretty simplistic.” Further, journalists were letting Reagan get away with “the crock that he was out of work in the ’30s” and therefore knew what being poor was like. “He’s always been a guy who had a paycheck coming in…an extremely rich man who has lived this isolated life…in this artificial world, with Nancy out in Pacific Palisades….”

The interview got picked up all over the country. If Brokaw’s audience cared, it didn’t show; his ratings continued to go up. So did Reagan’s. A lot of people see nothing wrong with privilege. They aim to live in the Palisades. Reagan’s vote-getting vision of the “shining city on a hill” was always upscale, not so much Norman Rockwell’s America as Justin Dart’s and Betsy Bloomingdale’s. The suburbs love them all.

My best work is still ahead of me. I believe that. — Dan Rather

The network news is done in high-technology style and, most of the time, with journalistic substance. In the past few years, however, the same technology that makes it possible for the seven o’clock news to bring in satellite stories from all over the world also permits strong local stations and new cable networks to gather the same stories — and put them on the air 30 minutes or an hour before the network news comes on. More and more of the audience may decide not to wait for Dan or Peter or Tom. Increasing numbers may turn to Ted Turner’s Cable News Network — the news around the clock, the news on demand, the news set to the viewer’s schedule rather than the networks’. Rather, Jennings and Brokaw, and their bosses, have all begun to speculate on the next major change in network news, which comes, perversely enough, at a time when the news has arguably achieved its highest quality.

One new format under discussion involves bringing newsmakers on camera and offering interviews or confrontational exchanges. Rather, Jennings and Brokaw over the past year have all begun to do a little of this within the structure of their present programs. But, as they and their viewers well know, the place where this emerging form gets its most prominent exercise is on ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel and, in a more leisurely work-up, on PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. The present three-way split in the news audience among Rather, Jennings and Brokaw serves them well, still keeps them in power. But as the local and cable alternatives present themselves, the anchors’ constituencies may further weaken. A new consensus personality may arise, not necessarily an authority figure like Cronkite or a demographic mirror like the current three but something much more, well, televisionlike. That is, a personality who thrives on live, unscripted, give-and-take controversy. As interviewers and creators of confrontation, Rather, Jennings and Brokaw are simply not as good as Ted Koppel.

All three of the anchors, unlike one another in so many ways, agree on one thing: They see themselves as newsmen, reporters who can go out and get a story. By the 1990s, they might be back on the streets again.

In This Article: ABC, CBS, Coverwall, NBC


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