By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — The appointment five years ago of Katie Couric as evening news anchor represented a bold step, certainly something new for CBS News. Her likely successor, Scott Pelley, hearkens back to a day when CBS was the gold standard in television news.
Pelley, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who has worked at CBS for 21 years, is expected to be named next week as anchor of the third-rated evening newscast, to compete nightly with Brian Williams of NBC and Diane Sawyer of ABC. Many at CBS News see no other candidate.
The expected new anchor is a courtly, 53-year-old Texan, born in San Antonio. Pelley worked in local TV news in Dallas and Lubbock, and worked at CBS as a Texas-based national correspondent. He was a CBS News White House correspondent during the end of the Clinton years, became a correspondent for the short-lived “60 Minutes II” spinoff and joined “60 Minutes” in 2003.
At CBS he has won awards for reporting on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, for stories on American waste that winds up in toxic dumps overseas instead of being recycled, and this season he has reported extensively on the human repercussions of the recession.
“He’s relentless as a reporter and he is relentless in his drive to do good journalism,” said Dan Rather, a fellow Texan and former “CBS Evening News” anchor. “He’s a rock-solid believer in the tradition, history, legends and myths of CBS News.”
The CBS News tradition that goes back half a century to Edward R. Murrow is looked on with pride by many at the network and outside, a reflection of an era where excellence in reporting and seriousness of purpose ruled. The new CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, is a CBS veteran seen as trying to bring back those values. To many, though, it’s a time gone by with CBS’ news division a clear third in strength behind NBC and ABC.
The evening anchor has long been seen as the face of a news division. Dwindling viewers, the importance of morning shows as profit centers and the ability of people to get news quickly on the Internet or cable news networks has reduced the influence of ABC’s “World News,” NBC’s “Nightly News” and the CBS newscast over the years. Still, the three newscasts collectively averaged 22 million viewers last week, the Nielsen Co. said.
Pelley is a meticulous journalist who does the little things to make a broadcast better, said Beth Knobel, a former Moscow bureau chief for CBS News and now a professor at Fordham University. When Pelley recently filled in as news anchor, he called correspondents ahead of time to craft their own questions for him to ask them on the air, which made them noticeably more informative than if he had read questions written by others, she said.
“He has the best qualities of the people who made CBS News America’s premier news organization,” she said. “He has the moral compass of Edward R. Murrow, the intensity of Mike Wallace and the compassion of Ed Bradley.”
She suggested that in Pelley’s hands, CBS’ evening newscast would be more hard-news oriented, with fewer human interest features.
Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose Tyndall Report monitors the content of network evening newscasts, said the “CBS Evening News” under Couric and Executive Producer Rick Kaplan is already “harder” than its counterparts at ABC and NBC. He judges this by the amount of international news it includes, and that its features are more public-policy oriented.
Couric has solid news credentials, but many people look at her and remember Halloween costumes, makeovers and happy talk at the “Today” show, he said.
“The transition from Couric to Pelley is going to be more about having a face on the newscast whose persona does not undercut the content, rather than allowing them to change content,” Tyndall said.
Couric, who is said to be weighing overtures from ABC, CBS and NBC centered on a syndicated talk show, expressed frustration at the limitations of the anchor job shortly after confirming this week she was leaving the CBS post. CBS has set no exit date.
“While it was a privilege to sit in that chair that was occupied by Walter Cronkite, you know it’s a pretty confining venue,” she said in an interview with PBS’ Tavis Smiley that aired Wednesday evening. “I’m looking forward to doing what I think is what I do best, which is interacting with people, interviewing people, having more of an extended conversation.”
Pelley comes without the detractors that stuck with Couric almost from the start, but also without her public profile. He can also seem stiff and formal on the air – the same criticism that current ratings leader Williams faced when he took over for Tom Brokaw at NBC.
That’s not necessarily bad, Tyndall said. Williams grew into his job and Pelley has the potential to do the same. “It allows you to work into the job rather than have the job change to fit you,” he said.
“He has Texas manners and he has Texas gentlemanly ways,” Rather said. “In today’s world, that strikes people as old-fashioned and stiff. I don’t see it that way at all. It strikes me as genuine.”
The only question Rather has about Pelley is his ability in special news situations that require long hours and ad-libbing, because it’s something he hasn’t done. But Rather said he believed Pelley had the skill to succeed.
Some who know Pelley also suggest he’d be good for morale, because he is known for reaching out and taking notice of others around him who have done good work. Couric has clearly been a polarizing figure at CBS News.
One question for CBS will be whether Pelley can maintain his connection to CBS’ showcase news program, “60 Minutes,” which Fager is still producing. Both Rather and Couric also worked for “60 Minutes,” but their presence there was more nominal than real. Pelley has been a mainstay of the show. There’s a new emphasis at CBS News in trying to tie the broadcasts together; Fager’s top deputy recently scolded “The Early Show” leaders in a memo that quickly circulated on the Web for not highlighting reporting from “60 Minutes” and other CBS newscasts.
Another, more profound worry for CBS is that its evening newscast has become a permanent No. 3 – much like its morning show has been for half a century. The evening newscast has been a clear No. 3 for more than a decade, and Couric couldn’t change that. It is handicapped by weak programming leading into the newscast at many CBS stations. CBS’ strength has always been in the heartland, and many of those viewers follow Shepard Smith at Fox News Channel, Tyndall said.
Pelley likely won’t make much of an immediate ratings impact, Rather predicted.
“It won’t be easy,” he said. “It will take time and probably a little bit of luck. But I do think they can move up.”
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