Anchor mainstays keep talking
Don't call up the Navy just yet. None of the big three networks is ready to drop an anchor, even though there's an oceanful of talk that at least two Ñ ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw Ñ may be getting ready to jump ship or walk the plank.
Cost cutting at the Disney empire has led ABC to ask Jennings to take a big slice out of his $10 million salary. Meanwhile, Brokaw is giving signals that he may hang it up and enjoy the good life Ñ something that doesn't require five nights a week in the Rockefeller Center studios.
For his part, however, Dan Rather just signed a contract that will keep him at CBS until 2006.
I have trouble even remembering what network news was like before Jennings, Brokaw and Rather took the helms of the evening newscasts and served as national guides through a series of dramatic and world-shattering events. In a medium in which the common denominator is change, these guys have set records with their longevity, not to mention their talent.
In television, after all, age only counts if you're under 40. But Rather, at 70, is five years older than Walter Cronkite was when he retired 20 years ago. Jennings is 64, and Brokaw 62.
All three still look good and show no signs of slowing down. But for the networks, that's not unusual. Mike Wallace, the '60 Minutes' icon, is 84 and just a few weeks ago announced he was going to be slashing his workload. And Barbara Walters? The diva of television news shows no sign of stepping away from her ABC gig.
If I had to put money on it, I'd say Jennings, Brokaw and Rather will be around this time next year and probably the year after that.
Yet if I had to make another wager, I'd put my money on a sure thing: Network newscasts will continue losing their share of the audience to cable news and niche channels Ñ and the viewers they manage to retain will be older. Eventually, as ratings continue to decline, this American institution will either go away or morph into the locally produced news blocks.
So far, surprisingly, the networks have resisted the temptation to go for the quick fix. Replacing any of these guys with younger dudes sporting sharper suits and better hair Ñ and a lot less experience Ñ is a recipe for disaster. And the networks know it.
A few years back, I had the opportunity to interview Cronkite, who told me how bitter he was that CBS didn't bring him back to anchor specials and other news programs after he left the 'CBS Evening News.' If he had known how much he'd miss it, he said, he wouldn't have retired.
Something tells me that Uncle Walter may have whispered the same thing to the network anchors we're seeing now. Hopefully, they'll take his cue.