Here is everything we know about the future anchor of the CBS Evening News, as outlined on Jan. 18 by the extremely tight-lipped, by-all-accounts-visionary and shorter-than-you’d-expect Sean McManus, the boy-wonder president of CBS News:
The person will be “recognizable to the American public.” He/She will have “great journalistic credentials,” “credibility,” “a persona” and, more than likely (although Mr. McManus did not say as much), a truly excellent pair of legs. The new anchor will have “covered a lot of major stories.” It won’t be interim anchor Bob Schieffer or White House correspondent John Roberts. In fact, it won’t be anyone from CBS. But it might—winkety-wink—be a big star with a giant salary from another network’s morning show.
“It is a very, very small number of people” who fit this description, Mr. McManus conceded during his presentation last week at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, so small the critics in the audience could probably count them on a thumb. And they did. The next day’s papers featured many hundreds of column inches devoted to new ways of saying “It’s Katie Couric!”
Which, let’s be honest, it is.
But there is one other person out there who fits the CBS wish list perfectly, who has a stunning résumé, a pristine reputation, top-notch name recognition and gams that would look great behind a giant, logo-covered desk. Just imagine for a minute: What if Mr. McManus, instead of betting the bank on Ms. Couric like everyone expects, went after … Diane Sawyer instead?
Gasp! Guffaw! Spit-take!
Yes, it’s unlikely. It’s borderline inconceivable. To some in the industry, the mere suggestion that hiring the 60-year-old Ms. Sawyer might on some level be a smarter or more interesting move than hiring the 49-year-old Ms. Couric is blasphemous, ridiculous or, as one producer said, “simply idiotic.”
“As a practical television person, I have to laugh at you,” said Steve Friedman, a two-time executive producer of the Today show on NBC and onetime executive producer of The Early Show on CBS.
But why not Ms. Sawyer? She’s brainy and accomplished. She’s read plenty of headlines in her day. She’s interviewed countless politicians and newsmakers to great acclaim, and, yes, also Michael Jackson one unfortunate day in 1995, but we all make mistakes. She’s classy. She’s beautiful. So what if, had she become a train conductor instead of a satin-voiced television correspondent, she would have qualified for an M.T.A. pension five years ago?
Ms. Sawyer’s boss, ABC News president David Westin, made age an issue in December when contemplating Peter Jennings’ replacement on World News Tonight, choosing Elizabeth Vargas, 43, and Bob Woodruff, 44, over Charles Gibson, 62, in part because they could theoretically hold down the post for a couple of decades, and Mr. Gibson was headed for Palm Springs and prime-time specials much sooner. But Mr. McManus has never said anything, publicly at least, about wanting someone from the spry fortysomething set.
And putting age aside, there are plenty of reasons why hiring Ms. Sawyer would make sense. For one, there just aren’t that many stars left in television news. Mr. McManus has already laid claim to being an old-fashioned executive, not unlike ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge, who achieved ratings victory in the 1970’s and 1980’s by cultivating Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Mr. Gibson, Ms. Sawyer and Jim McKay, a legendary sports announcer and Mr. McManus’ father. The Arledgian strategy calls for the biggest names in the brightest lights. This is Mr. McManus’ avowed plan. It worked for CBS Sports, which he also runs, and by God, it will work for news.
“If you were Sean, and you just became president of CBS News, the first thing you would do would be to sit in a room and make a list of the people you want to steal. Then you’d go around and figure out which ones you can steal,” said one former network executive. “I guarantee you that’s what he did on his summer vacation. Diane has got to be on that list.”
Whether Ms. Sawyer can be stolen is a separate question. She has guarded the details of her contract with ABC closely over the years. The world knows Ms. Couric makes $16 million a year and that her contract with NBC is up in May. For Ms. Sawyer, that number is probably closer to $12 or $13 million a year, according to reported estimates. It is not widely known when her contract expires or whether, as previous ones have, her current contract has exit windows. In any event, it is safe to say neither woman could be had without considerable finagling and staggering sums. But no one ever said you could save a network on the cheap.
And saving is what CBS needs. It has the third-rated morning show, the third-rated evening-news broadcast and 60 Minutes, a once-great franchise—for which Ms. Sawyer was a contributor in the 1980’s, when she started her career, at CBS—that has fallen into a ratings slump along with the other networks’ copycat newsmagazine shows. The Evening News draws approximately 7.5 million viewers a night. ABC bests that by more than a million, on average, and the first-rated NBC Nightly News, anchored by Brian Williams, regularly draws 2.2 million more viewers than CBS, according to Nielsen Media Research.
“If it were my show, and I was confronted with a choice between the two, I would take Diane hands down,” said Robert Zelnick, a former news director for ABC News who helped Ms. Sawyer get her first job at CBS. “I think she is a more serious news person, despite her years of Primetime Live and 20/20 and all the crap she’s done. She’s still smarter, better informed. She has a much more intuitive sense of politics. I think Diane is a heavyweight usually well-disguised.”
Ms. Sawyer anchors the second-rated morning show, where she has tried but never quite succeeded in overtaking Ms. Couric and her co-anchors at NBC’s Today. She and Mr. McManus could have long conversations over expensive dinners about how agonizing it is to not be in first place, about what it’s like to wake up at 4:30 every morning and rewrite the rundown to your show and stay late into the day chasing interviews and plotting and planning for next week, and the week after.
At the Television Critics Association presentation, Mr. McManus described what he valued in his employees: “I would say that there is not a fear at CBS News, but there is an understanding that ‘I better be pretty darn good at what I do and better be working every single minute of my waking hours to make sure I’m doing the best job I can or I’m going to have a problem.’”
This is the sort of thing you could probably find tattooed somewhere on Ms. Sawyer’s elegant forearm.
What she has in place of her competitor’s top ratings is this insatiable drive—and more on-air experience at night. Many have fretted over Ms. Couric’s ability to shift from her dawn-time smorgasbord of headlines, cooking segments and celebrity interviews to the strictures and seriousness of a 6:30 p.m. broadcast. Ms. Sawyer, who once worked as an aide in the Nixon White House press office, might have more built-in gravitas. She has all but stopped doing celebrity interviews recently. She seems to be letting her colleagues do more of the kitten-petting and child-costuming segments. And you’ll notice no one’s writing nasty things about her short skirts or changing hairdo.
“I think Katie is more of a break with the past,” Mr. Zelnick said. “What you say positive about Diane makes her look more like the people who have occupied the chair in the past and not less like them. The people who are saying that Katie is too light and frivolous have no real antidote to the precipitous decline in viewership of network television news.”
At the Television Critics Association tour a year ago, Mr. McManus’ boss, CBS president Leslie Moonves, announced his intentions to reinvent the Evening News, the sort of project for which only Ms. Couric might be capable. But this year Mr. McManus was far less revolutionary. “I don’t see any reason for us to tear up the format or break the mold,” he said.
“In this business, we’re way overdue on a woman sitting in one of those Big Three chairs,” said Ms. Vargas in an interview with The Observer in December 2004, almost one year to the day before she was made co-anchor of World News Tonight. At that time, a reporter asked her if she would be interested in the CBS anchor chair, which had just recently come available in the wake of Dan Rather’s flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard service. Ms. Vargas said she hadn’t heard from Mr. Moonves about the job.
“I think they’re too busy calling Diane Sawyer,” she said.
Art of the Deal, By Ted Koppel
“In the final analysis,” Ted Koppel said, in that familiar, spine-tingling and slightly bored-sounding voice he made famous as anchor of ABC’s Nightline, “what you have to do with any corporation is hold a gun to your temple and say, ‘Give me what I need or I’m gonna blow the kid away.’”
Talking on the phone from his house in suburban Maryland, Mr. Koppel would not say whether this take-a-prisoner strategy was the one he employed in recent deals to become a commentator on NPR, an occasional columnist for The New York Times or the managing editor of the cable channel Discovery.
Nor would Mr. Koppel, who does his own negotiating, comment on the street value of that third arrangement, by which he and a team of nine ABC veterans will produce at least six prime-time documentary programs a year for three years, and which a television source close to the negotiations told NYTV is worth an impressive $5 million.
“Basically, you are exchanging commodities,” he said, “and if you have a commodity that television needs, they will pay you, and they will pay you generously. If you no longer have it, or if you don’t have what they need, then they’ll find someone else who does. The important thing is never take it personally. It’s not personal. It’s not personal when they are showering you with enormous praise and giving you huge contracts, and it’s not personal when they stop doing that.”
For the better part of his 43 years in broadcast news, they didn’t stop doing that. Mr. Koppel was a high-end, well-paid (to the tune of a reported $10 million a year) and defiantly independent television commodity. He had no agent, a contract full of holes that gave him plenty of outs if he wanted them, and a sense of television news as something vital to people’s lives.
But the business has changed almost beyond recognition in the years since he joined ABC. The broadcast networks have grown increasingly inhospitable to serious newsmen, Mr. Koppel said, and broadcast news has all but lost its place as a leader of public thought.
“I think at a time when we have never more urgently needed serious news coverage, we’re getting less and less of it,” he said.
When Mr. Koppel announced last spring that he would be leaving Nightline for good, after three years of tense relationships with ABC executives after a failed 2002 ploy to lure David Letterman into Nightline’s 11:35 p.m. timeslot, the evolution of the industry came into high relief.
He was part of a generation of big-time anchors, including Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, who all vacated their chairs in the span of one year. Their retirements recalled a simpler time for the medium.
“I’d be surprised if the budget back in 1963 would pay one network anchor today,” Mr. Koppel said. “The expectation was: ‘Here it is. This is all you’re getting. There won’t be any more, so go make the most of it.’ It was curiously liberating. That allowed network news divisions to go cover what they thought was important, and they did.
“It used to be, and to a very limited extent it still is today, that network news divisions would tell the public what was important. And now the equation has been turned on its head. Now Madison Avenue tells the networks, ‘Here’s the audience we’re looking for. This audience likes this kind of programming.’ That’s perfectly acceptable in the world of entertainment. But I don’t think it’s acceptable in the world of news.”
So where will the Nightline-style in-depth, long-form journalism come from in the future?
The answer was not surprising.
NPR, Mr. Koppel said. The Times. Discovery. PBS, whose Frontline program shows that “only six or eight programs done the right way can have more of an impact than all of the drivel that fills the airwaves every day.”
Not the networks?
“My hope still is that someone is going to realize they’re going in the wrong direction,” he said.
NPR, for example, draws tens of millions of listeners, he said, by providing them with “intelligent coverage of the news, by having editors and reporters and producers who really are trying to sort of sift through everything that’s going on in the world and saying, ‘This is the stuff you ought to know about.’ And lo and behold, the people tune in.”
“I can’t believe the broadcast networks wouldn’t achieve the same kind of success,” Mr. Koppel said, “if they just had the patience.”
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