Monday, August 08, 2005

Anchorman Down
News junkies and TV history geeks should join in a toast today to Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor who died over the weekend. Just how long Jennings had been at the ABC anchor desk in one role or another is quite surprising--since 1978, as part of ABC's three-headed newscast, and as a solo act since 1983. Jennings also anchored the network's evening newscast for three years in the 1960s, up against Walter Cronkite and the Huntley-Brinkley Report. I grew up an Uncle Walter fan, but after Cronkite retired, I moved over to ABC, and for several years Jennings was my anchor of choice. I stopped watching network news sometime in the early 90s, but until the Internet exploded, I usually found my way to ABC when major news broke.

David Bauder's Associated Press obituary for Jennings is comprehensive, although it includes one weird sentence: "With Americans looking more inward in the mid to late-1990s, NBC's Tom Brokaw surpassed Jennings in the ratings." I'm guessing that refers to Jennings' international experience and his broadcast's focus on international news, and presumes that viewers uninterested in international news started preferring Brokaw's South Dakota blandness to Jennings' Canadian cool. (Earlier in the obit, Bauder noted that Jennings was especially popular with urban viewers.) That's quite a leap, though. A more logical reason for Brokaw's rise in the mid '90s is the competitive balance of the networks. During that period, NBC had one of the strongest primetime lineups in history--ER, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier--and such a dominant ratings lead in primetime couldn't help having a trickle-down effect all across the schedule.

In any event, Brokaw's lead over Jennings was slight, and the competition between the major network newscasts remains tight. Never mind that in a universe with 24-hour cable channels and the Internet, a daily 30-minute news summary at 5:30PM is as irrelevant as an afternoon newspaper. When Brokaw retired last year, I suggested that it would be a fine excuse for NBC to dump its nightly newscast entirely because they've got a 24-hour cable channel with a deep bench of anchors who could be pressed into service when the mothership needed to cover spot news. ABC has no such luxury, so somebody will be hired to replace Jennings eventually.

One thing is certain, though--it won't be a Canadian who didn't finish college.

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