In Pelley, CBS has probably the most well-qualified and proven television journalist ever to ascend to the anchor job; he has filed breaking news pieces from around the nation and the world, covered the White House, and compiled an impressive body of work for 60 Minutes. His no-nonsense (some would say stiff) style is well matched to the style of the program. The closest he comes to hyperbole is when he refers to CBS News resources “around the world” (the reality is that CBS, like the other networks, has drastically cut back its foreign coverage resources, dropping most of its correspondents, producers, crews, and bureaus overseas) and touts added information provided by “our research department” (which amounts to three full-time employees). He is less likely to comment on a correspondent’s report than to be found on camera as the report ends, gazing thoughtfully at the monitor, his eyeglasses and his chin in his hand.
Pelley and his producers spend more time on foreign news, Washington news, and politics—the traditional fare of the network evening news broadcast. They air pieces aimed at providing background and perspective. Warm and fuzzy stories are hard to find. So are any signs of feeling—even a smile—from the anchor. While ABC’s broadcast seems finely tuned to audience research and the techniques that have built ratings on local newscasts around the nation (go hard on weather stories; never pass up a story featuring animals), CBS seems to seek merit badges for lofty intentions. Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, is supremely confident: “I don’t look at the research. I don’t believe in it. You do what you do well. You cover what you think is important or interesting. It’s news. It’s journalism.”
NBC’s Williams describes the CBS Evening News as “a serious endeavor.” That’s as far as he will go, but it’s clear his program aims at a sweet spot between lofty and light. Williams remembers his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, “reminding everybody about the back-fence principle espoused by Charles Kuralt and Walter Cronkite….You can’t be above what two people choose to talk about that evening. You have to note that you live in this world.”
In its mix of content and in its style, Nightly News tries to achieve that feeling of neighbors chatting to each other. While a viewer can rely on the program’s first segment not to shy from the day’s traditional news budget, the mix also includes soft feel-good features like “Making A Difference,” “Sign of the Times,” and “Road to Retirement.” The Williams writing style—the opposite of hot ABC copy—approximates that back-fence conversation. His introductions to pieces meander more than broadcast writing conventions would dictate, but the technique may help viewers understand what they’re about to see. And his choices of filler items seem to facilitate folksy story-telling: a guy shot in “the backside” by a dog (“the dog is not talking”), a fire alarm set off by a squirrel living in the school kitchen (the bad news is “those weren’t raisins on the rice pudding”), missing moon rocks (“check your sock drawer”), a coming lunar eclipse (“consult your local listings”), and two newly discovered planets (“the bummer here” is they’re too hot to live on). Like Sawyer, Williams often uses “we,” “you,” and “our” to edge closer to the audience. He likes informalities like “the Feds.” Even the way Williams closes his broadcast is right down the comfortable middle: He’ll “look for you” tomorrow night. No ponderous thank you from all those CBS folks around the world; no earnest call to rejoin Diane tomorrow.
The differences are clear. Sawyer and World News search for the popular stories (Sherwood prefers to call them “relevant”) and try for emotional connections with the audience; Pelley and the Evening News take an approach more serious than any in memory; and Williams and the Nightly News remain in the traditional mainstream, though with softer edges. The questions are whether all this matters in the ratings competition, and whether it will have an impact on the future of television network news.