Insight. Antics.

Why The Anchor Rancor?

In Media on September 10, 2009 at 1:21 am

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in Anchorman  - DreamWorks

Ron Burgundy must be spinning in his grave.  Not one, but two women will be helming the flagship network newscasts?  “Hot pot of coffee!” he would say.  “That is a joke. I’ll even write it down in my diary: ‘Charlie Gibson had a very funny joke today.’  I’m going to laugh about it later tonight.”  Watch out Brian Williams, these cougars are hunting.

Diane Sawyer certainly has the demeanor and presence to set the tone for a network newscast, save that time she got a little tipsy at Obama’s inauguration.

Sawyer will stand on the shoulders of giants when she takes over though, as Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, and, much as they might be perennial rivals, Katie Couric, have all eased the way for her.  That’s purely metaphorical by the way, since none of those women is above 5’ 5”.

Walters was a real-life Veronica Corningstone whose dream of being a network anchor came to fruition but was short-lived, partially because her co-anchor was a gruff, Old World newsman who displayed on-air disdain for her.

Things have also come a long way from the public outcry and sexism kerfuffle around Connie Chung’s firing from her two-year stint with Dan Rather in the mid-90s on CBS.

Moreover, Couric has earned respect for her disarming and insightful interviews with Sarah Palin that altered the course of he 2008 campaign.

An interesting aspect of this development is what it will say about gender and ratings.  Couric settled into a distant third against Williams and Gibson.  Does she garner fewer viewers because she is different?  Because she is a woman?  Will people show brand loyalty or gender loyalty?  For good or ill, we will be able to tell in January: Sawyer’s entry will serve as a sort of control group.

Katie Couric - Photo CBS/John Paul FiloThere was a great piece on the Big Three of Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather in The New York Times Magazine years ago.  I never forgot the line on their competition and collegiality: “ ‘Once in a very great while, though I can’t remember the last time it happened, it’s not unheard of to have lunch,’ Rather says. ‘But it doesn’t happen as often as once a year.’ ”  It would be enrapturing if these four women got together for some $5 Footlongs and held court.

Will Ferrell and Christina Applegate in Anchorman - DreamWorksGibson’s departure ostensibly came out of nowhere and would almost seem illogical based on his dogged pursuit of it, chronicled at length in a New York Magazine piece from the time.  When ABC News President David Westin reportedly “offered a two-year deal to Gibson to keep the seat warm until the 2008 election and then gracefully move aside” he turned it down threatening to retire (which was enticing since his wife recently had).

So, he played hardball and eventually earned the permanent nod (passing over Sawyer at the time in a complex game), only to stay a year longer?  He either wanted his own shot at a full-on prime election year (journalists clamor for those) and that was it, or he realized he wants to spend more time with his wife now. Perhaps something else will reveal itself over time.

Charles Gibson - ABC

Regardless, can you blame the guy?  After years and years, he recognized his one unexpected chance to rise to the top at that one moment and had the guts to go for it.

Three years later, Rebecca Dana’s Daily Beast piece that Gibson was “livid” about Sawyer’s replacing him grasps at straws.  Who did he think would replace him?  However, I do have a small gripe for Gibson: the biggest story in your industry is you leaving your job and you don’t mention it on your show, in some misplaced, wooden sense of duty to neutrality?

Diane Sawyer - ABCIn Slate, Jack Shafer makes a case for why Diane Sawyer should turn down the job.  But she’s too old guard to rebuff the prestige she associates with it.  Any newsie would be.  As Sawyer herself said in 2006 (albeit after giving in to Gibson), “Everyone always says the morning drives the news these days, but you can’t come out of hard news and be in this business and not be interested in World News Tonight.”

Shafer questions what the upside is for Sawyer, subscribing to the conventional wisdom that the 6:30 evening news programs hearken back to an earlier time, that these are legacy newscasts with little remaining purpose.  Aside from being cash cows chewing on the grass of (incessant and terrible) pharmaceutical spots that run during them.

On the contrary, as Shafer himself references, the week before last the three programs combined attracted an average of 20.3 million viewers a night.  Even if about 60% of those viewers are over 54, it still means something that on a nightly basis 7% of this country tunes into watch these broadcasts.  What else do 7% of Americans do together every day now?  I’m pretty sure “watch American Idol” is the only thing. (Welcome, Ellen: Please be funny.)  So, I would contend it’s because these broadcasts still occupy an important role as low bias, low noise, even-keeled portals to the world, much like the overnight news.

Shafer also advocates for hiring dozens more reporters to break stories (a noble sentiment) instead of an anchor with a household name, drawing on an anomalous two weeks in 1967 when Walter Cronkite joined the AFTRA strike and 28-year-old Arnold Zenker replaced him.  Zenker got almost the same ratings as Cronkite it’s true, but what Shafer leaves out is that if you wanted to watch television in 1967 you had exactly three choices.

1967 TV ScheduleViewers want something in a person and a brand that is reliable and familiar.  These programs will never dominate the way they used to, but they have an integral niche.  If they weren’t around what would be the voice of (relative) sanity around here? Cable news? Local news? Naked News?

Now, the Sunday morning talk shows are the last bastion of male dominance in news.  You can be a guest sure, like Gwen Ifill, but not a host?  When Bob Schieffer retires, that will be the test, since I think there are guys playing Major League Baseball younger than David Gregory and George Snuffleupagus, I mean Stephanopoulos.  If CBS News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Lara Logan were to get that longshot nod, “Great Odin’s Raven!  That would be a great story.  Compelling, and rich.”

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