CBS news lags in the ratings game
Somewhere, Walter Cronkite is having a good laugh. He's got to be, considering the sorry state the 'CBS Evening News' is in lately. The perennial ratings king of Cronkite's day is now mired in last place behind NBC and ABC, drawing its smallest audiences in 10 years.
After Cronkite signed off from the network newscast in 1981, he expected to be invited back for space shots and various specials, maybe even election nights. But the last time I saw Cronkite on CBS, he was reciting David Letterman's Top Ten list. The calls from the news division never came.
Cronkite was ticked. At least that's what he told me. And you have to believe the man once voted the most-trusted man in America, right?
What goes around comes around, I suppose. Now 'The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather' continues to lag further behind in the ratings. If the course doesn't reverse in a hurry, Rather and the rest of the CBS News hierarchy may be looking at retirement, too Ñ the forced kind.
Two weeks ago, Brian Williams Ñ Tom Brokaw's heir apparent at NBC, who has never seen a starched shirt he didn't like Ñ subbed for Brokaw on 'NBC Nightly News' and still managed to clobber Rather. As Williams isn't one who puts up big ratings numbers on MSNBC and CNBC, this was not a good omen.
In the past six months, while evening newscasts on NBC and ABC have increased in the ratings nationally, CBS has sunk 4 percent. In the Portland market since May, 'Nightly News' has remained flat while CBS and ABC fell 3 percent.
Cronkite never had to worry about a deteriorating audience once he took over the top spot when Chet Huntley retired from NBC. And that's what makes CBS' situation so daunting: In the news game, once the sliding has started, it generally takes years to recover.
The problem Ñ make that problems Ñ that CBS has are obvious. Cronkite excepted, the news stars at CBS are the same people who ruled the 1970s. Most are now in their 70s. Andy Rooney and Mike Wallace, two of the networks' biggest guns, are in their 80s.
At 71, Rather is five years older than Cronkite was when he hung it up. Correspondents such as Bill Plante and Bob Schieffer are still heavy hitters, but if you're looking for the youthful energy, looks and flair that viewers tend to gravitate toward (yes, even on the news), CBS is probably not where you're going to go.
The irony of ironies is that before Sept. 11, CBS was still the hard news network. ABC and NBC were increasingly cutting back on international and political coverage and filling their newscasts with news lite Ñ lifestyle stories having to do with health, consumer issues and fuzzy features. That all changed, and CBS' competition became more like CBS because it had to.
While the entertainment lineup on CBS has made major strides recently (thanks to 'Survivor,' 'CSI' and 'Everybody Loves Raymond'), 'The CBS Evening News' has never benefited. The suits must hate that.
Unfortunately for them, though, that's the way it is. Walter couldn't have said it better himself.