"Wanted: Fearless, telegenic forward thinker to give a 'shot in the arm' to a fading art form. Ability to seamlessly switch from wisecracks to serious faces required. Media experience preferred, but stand-up comedy or celebrity commentary experience will suffice. Women and hip youth encouraged to apply! Please contact ABC, NBC, and CBS News."
It's hard being a network news anchor these days. Well, not these days, per se; those three networks' nightly news shows are still, as they all hasten to point out, the largest news sources in America. But as they gaze toward the future, the anchors - the three (or four) most gosh-darned successful and well-dressed figures in all of TV journalism - must realize that they have cast their lots with a group that is steadily bowing to more ascendant media channels.
As the generation that made Walter Cronkite one of the nation's most influential men moves toward retirement and beyond, and the generation without a 30-minute attention span takes over, network news operations are all taking a hard look at the traditional concept of the news anchor.
Can any one person ever capture the attention of America's vast array of demographics again? Sure, O.J. Simpson did it. But fame is fleeting these days, and the elusive combination of credibility, upstanding sex appeal, and the power to hold an audience's interest that has traditionally given the big three network news anchors their job security for decades may be a thing of the past.
The current anchors, all of whom have spent their entire careers patiently climbing the ladder and silently hoping for Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings to come down with the flu each week, must feel a bit like the dog who finally caught the car he was chasing and doesn't know what to do with it.
Two points about today's crop stand out. First is the relative diversity of their approaches to the news and career paths, and second is how apparent it is becoming that their backstories are not going to be nearly enough to reunite the public around the concept of "the most trusted man in America."
Brian Williams of NBC has taken the classic route to his post. He waited patiently in the wings for Brokaw's departure and, when the time came, was the clear successor. ABC, blindsided by the quick death of Jennings, tried to innovate by pairing two lesser stars, only to see one injured in an Iraqi roadside bombing and the other announce an unplanned pregnancy during the duo's first months on the job. And at CBS, Bob Schieffer troops merrily along as its perpetual "interim anchor." He seems to be having a blast, and his down-home style is refreshing, but he is probably not considered appointment television for Generation X-ers rushing home from work.
Brian Stelter, who follows TV news as closely as anyone in America for his TVNewser blog, says that anchors are still relevant, but adds that a "transition" needs to be made.
"The average evening news viewer is an AARP member," he notes. "One of the big three has to be young and bold. I don't think young and bold means Katie Couric; Katie was on the cover of AARP Magazine."
Touché. The networks are much too monolithic to pick an anchor truly nimble enough to shock non-TV news viewers into paying attention. Stelter predicts that the nightly news shows will each eventually evolve into different types of newscasts, so that viewers' preferences will be more meaningful. And one, at least, will have to pick a young anchor in a play to rip younger consumers away from the Internet. But take note, television executives: Stelter says the suave, metrosexual, hurricane-chasing man of the moment, Anderson Cooper, is "old."
The network that finds that mysterious, trustworthy, and magnetic celebrity will hold the key to a new generation of consumers. And if that doesn't work, O.J. is always available.