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.
There are people at all three networks who worry that Sawyer and Sherwood are taking their flagship network newscast downmarket, and even tabloid, in an effort to win the ratings war at any cost. They fear that if ABC is successful, it will put pressure on the other networks to lower their standards. Sherwood rejects that kind of criticism—from people he calls “the high priests of news”—and he says he is mindful of both the “great heritage and tradition of ABC News” and the “desire to win the future.” He argues that all the evening newscasts have used a mix of hard and soft stories and “news you can use” for many years. “Every editor in America is involved in a daily debate over what to put on Page One or what to put on the homepage of the website or to put on the broadcast,” he says. “Every editor in America is engaged in a dialectic over how to deliver what’s important and what’s interesting.”
Williams refuses to criticize his competitors. But he is fully aware that Sawyer’s ratings got closer than ever to his when she began her program one night with a report on the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, while NBC was leading with the economy and politics.
“Hasn’t that always been the dirty little secret that we know that third rail is there?,” Williams says. “We all know exactly where it is and sometimes you have to walk real close to it. I happen to think people don’t tune into the Nightly News to see the Michael Jackson story. There’s a lot we won’t do.”