Five days before Christmas, on the night Congress deadlocked on payroll tax rates and unemployment benefits affecting more than 160 million Americans, the first story on World News, the flagship evening broadcast of ABC News, was about a blizzard. “Wicked weather” had people in the east “bracing for a storm that could threaten holiday travel plans for millions.” The CBS Evening News began with two pieces on the Washington stalemate, including a blistering analysis by Bob Schieffer, the veteran chief Washington correspondent, who called the Congress “totally dysfunctional.” The legislators, he said, had put up a “neon sign” that reminded people why Congress had a nine percent favorable rating.
NBC Nightly News, as it so often does, took a middle-of-the-road approach, leading with a piece on the standoff in Congress, softened by the kind of introduction that anchor Brian Williams likes to use to make the news more accessible:
Tonight people are on the move and mall parking lots are full amid the stress of everyday life in the week running up to Christmas. The nation’s elected representatives are fighting and are again deadlocked…. And while it’s important legislation … it’s the business of Washington and it’s the fight that is coming through loud and clear, and the closer you get to the Capitol, the louder it becomes.
On the day late in February when Bashar al-Assad’s tanks and artillery killed more than 70 civilians in Homs—including Marie Colvin, the American-born correspondent—ABC World News began with a report that gas prices were “rising before our eyes” and “fed-up drivers are fighting back” and “venting their anger.” It was the second time in three days that World News began with the gas-price story, and the change in the average price per gallon between the first time and the second was two cents. ABC aired its Syrian story, narrated by correspondent Christiane Amanpour in the New York studio, more than 10 minutes into the broadcast, at the end of the first segment. The coverage ran under 3 minutes.
That evening, CBS Evening News began with nearly six minutes of coverage of what anchor Scott Pelley called “the massacre,” and what the US government called “shameless brutality.” NBC Nightly News, in the middle again, began with almost four minutes about what Williams called “bona fide atrocities,” and what his chief foreign correspondent (reporting from the region) described as “indiscriminate shelling” of civilians.
ABC’s choices on these two newscasts were driven less by traditional news values than by a desire to be different—to distinguish ABC from the competition. One participant in the decision to start with the winter weather story in December said, “We knew CBS would lead big with Congress, because it’s their kind of thing, and we were pretty sure NBC would. So we went for the snow pictures, and the possibility bad weather would spread across the country.” In fact, however, weather for holiday travel was nearly perfect across the country. That’s one of the problems with searching for a “different” lead—sometimes you wind up looking trivial or too far off the news. But at ABC News it has been a preoccupation of the anchor and producers to look for what they call the “insurgent lead.” Ben Sherwood introduced the term when he took over as President of ABC News at the beginning of 2011, and wanted his staff to understand the change he hoped to see.
“Insurgent is a word that means to rise up against the established order,” Sherwood says. “And so part of what I wanted to do was to rise up against the established order of choosing things—the established, traditional view—and say what is an alternative to the established order of picking things, so that we’re all not identical. Because if we’re all identical at 6:30, then the established order will prevail. And the established order is that Brian is in first, and we’re in second, and CBS is in third.”
ABC is not alone in wanting to distinguish itself. For the first time in the history of the iconic evening network news broadcasts, all three are trying to present clear choices, built around the very different identities of their anchors. ABC emphasizes stories it considers most relevant to its viewers’ lives, plus lighter news and features, in a program built around the dramatic (some say melodramatic) delivery of Diane Sawyer. CBS delivers a serious program on steroids, in harmony with Pelley’s buttoned-down personality. And the ratings leader, NBC, has staked out the middle ground, with an anchor, Williams, who has news credibility but no aversion to feature stories, and who loves to show off his wry sense of humor.