Anchors are losing their hold on viewers

WALTER CRONKITE, once considered the most trusted figure in America, established an emotional connection between the public and national news anchors. However, as the nightly network news - like all other sectors of traditional media - grapples with diminishing significance, critics are calling the necessity for a national news-delivering celebrity into question.

WALTER CRONKITE, once considered the most trusted figure in America, established an emotional connection between the public and national news anchors. However, as the nightly network news - like all other sectors of traditional media - grapples with diminishing significance, critics are calling the necessity for a national news-delivering celebrity into question.

For instance, if Katie Couric's days at CBS News are truly numbered, her tenure will likely be considered the most expensive network failure in investing in on-air talent.

Media critics attribute the ratings catastrophe that is the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric to her stepping into a costly contract, $75 million over five years, at an inopportune time. They also point to CBS banking on its viewers wanting to personally connect with a network news figure.

CBS declined to comment for this story.

As is the case with the decline of newspapers and other media, the Web is also partially responsible for the falling stature of the national network news anchor. With so many sources of information available, viewers don't need to put their trust - or loyalty - in one network anchor who is only available during a specific time slot, says Judy Muller, associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California.

"People are a lot savvier and they can go to a lot of different sources to check resources," she explains. "And they don't buy it just because a great white father is telling [the news] at 6:30 from New York."

In an era when viewers demand more transparency and less structured time with famed anchors, one casualty of Couric's staggering salary may have been Public Eye - a CBS blog seeking to bring transparency to broadcast and online media, adds Muller.

The network said earlier this year that it didn't have the funds to continue the blog.

Ironically, Public Eye was the result of the downfall of another national anchor: Dan Rather.

Faced with a credibility gap after airing his discredited report about President Bush's National Guard service, the network eventually saw a new anchor as more vital to the public interest than a transparency-oriented blog.

"I don't know if you can make that line-item budget connection or not," says Muller. "But I think you certainly can make the case that for [the] resources at CBS, something had to go to make $75 million available for five years."

Meanwhile, cable networks still look to celebrity figures to boost ratings. CNN talk-show host Larry King recently renewed his contract through 2010, while other cable news figures like anchor and reporter Anderson Cooper have developed a large following.

Yet cable news personalities have an advantage over their broadcast counterparts like Couric. The 24-hour news cycle appeals to individuals who need information outside the standard time slots or those who watch the news for entertainment. Cable networks also send celebrities to news events that many viewers consider crises, explains Muller.

"In those moments, TV is a community medium," she adds. "We turn to it. We look for people we trust. And that is where these people will earn their money."

However, it's too early to say whether Couric, NBC's Brian Williams, or ABC's Charles Gibson are the last of the household-name network news anchors, explains Rachel Sklar, media editor at The Huffington Post.

"It's too easy to say that this Katie Couric implosion is indicative of a larger trend," she says. "They tried to break too many molds at the same time. It is hard to say what would have happened had they hunkered down quietly and had this no-nonsense newscast."

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