But if one broadcast “went tabloid” night after night, would it win? “Probably,” Williams sighs. “It’s sitting out there for the taking. Anyone wants to do it, they can do it. And if it results in what everyone fears—a tabloid juggernaut—we’ll be the happiest second-place newscast in the country.”

At CBS, Fager believes “the country is so sick of all the celebrity stuff, which we’re completely drowning in. The same thing with crime; it starts to look the same. If someone said to me, ‘Look Jeff, you have to go downmarket,’ I’d say, ‘Find someone else to do it.’”

No such drama seems imminent. News ratings tend to change slowly, but it appears the ratings race is getting tighter. Season averages (September 2010-May 2011 versus September 2011-May 2012) show that in the first year of head-to-head competition with the current anchors, the CBS Evening News gained 236,000 viewers (+4 percent), while NBC Nightly News lost 429,000 (-5 percent) and ABC World News lost 390,000 (-5 percent). Because NBC lost more viewers than ABC, the gap between them (about a million viewers) is a bit smaller. As a result of its gains and the others’ losses, CBS moved closer to NBC and ABC by more than 600,00 viewers. And executives at ABC see what they hope are signs of a trend that would make the race tighter: Toward the end of the season, World News cut the gap with Nightly News to about half a million viewers in some weeks, and actually beat Nightly News on two nights.

Williams and his program are reliable and credible, and Williams has the advantage of having anchored the evening broadcast the longest. At ABC, words like “downmarket” and “tabloid” seem less relevant than “most watchable.” Many nights, Sawyer offers a satisfying mix of traditional news, soft features, news you can use, and the kind of “guilty pleasure” items that even news snobs are most likely to talk about—whether it’s over that back fence or over cocktails on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Sawyer is a star; the unknowable issue is whether, over the long haul, her style is too over the top for viewers, or whether it’s appealing in the context of a “news lite” broadcast. At CBS, Pelley remains in last place, but he’s gaining back many of the viewers (especially men) who were turned off by Katie Couric.

“What’s exciting right now is that the game’s on,” Sherwood says. “For the first time in a really long time the game’s on.”

As long as the game is on, and the three broadcasts are seen as viable alternatives, there is some protection from the biggest threat to the evening newscasts: being closed down by their corporate parents. The news divisions are understandably skeptical about assurances from their parent companies that news is loved and respected; budget cuts imposed on the news divisions over the last 10 years have left them battered. The corporate argument goes this way: “This is a business, and it makes no business sense to broadcast a program that costs so much money, attracts an audience too small to produce enough revenue, and doesn’t provide anything unique.”

It is no secret that at both ABC and CBS, corporate management has pushed news management to make deals with CNN that would get them out from under the very high costs and—in some years—the losses involved in maintaining the highly paid staffs and expensive facilities needed to produce the evening newscasts. So far, the talks have come to nothing because the networks have union contracts and CNN doesn’t, and that makes it nearly impossible to share resources. One alternative that has been discussed is to get around the union barriers by licensing CNN to produce an evening newscast for a network, for a fee that would be less than what the network spends to maintain its own staff and facilities.

Another alternative is to simply abandon the evening news business, while continuing to produce magazine programs and possibly the morning program, for a decent profit. It doesn’t require a big, expensive news gathering infrastructure to implement that option.

Paul Friedman is the Professional in Residence at the Quinnipiac School of Communications. Over a span of 40 years, he worked at all three network news divisions, including positions as senior producer of NBC Nightly News, executive producer of Today, executive producer of ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and executive vice president of CBS News.