Scott Pelley’s removal from the CBS Evening News anchor chair, a shift in the works for months and confirmed May 31, reveals not only frustration at the perpetual third-place broadcast news division but also questions facing the continued viability of nightly half-hour newscasts.
ABC World News Tonight, anchored by David Muir, is the most watched broadcast but was down 2 percent in viewers and 7 percent in the critical 25- to-54 demographic during the first quarter of 2017. Meanwhile, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt was off 4 percent in overall viewers and 6 percent in the demo (but still leads it). Pelley’s Evening News, which remains stalled at third by both measures, had the largest declines: 6 percent in overall viewers and 13 percent in the demo.
The evening news programs still are valuable franchises, reaching nearly 25 million viewers each night, an enormous number by today’s fractured media standards. But unlike cable news channels, which are booming thanks to Donald Trump, the half-hour broadcasts have experienced no Trump bump. And CBS, which for years had been a laggard in the morning daypart as well, finally has mounted a successful alternative with CBS This Morning. Anchored by Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, the broadcast marked its five-year anniversary in January and has given the network its biggest morning audience in more than 20 years, its total viewership coming extremely close to NBC’s second-place Today in recent weeks. It also has notched significant ad revenue increases: $127 million in 2016, according to ad tracking firm Standard Media Index.
O’Donnell, who has served as fill-in anchor on the CBS Evening News, was floated as Pelley’s replacement when rumors of his ouster first surfaced in December. But CBS News executives have been outspoken about the priority to keep the 7 to 9 a.m. crew together. “We’re not making any changes to a really successful team in the morning,” CBS News president David Rhodes told THR in January.
CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason, 60, has been named interim anchor, while Pelley, 59, moves full-time to 60 Minutes, where he will be a much-needed asset to its thinned correspondent corps as the Sunday newsmagazine enters its 50th season in September with fresh competition from Megyn Kelly. (His last scheduled day as anchor is June 16.)
Mason, a 31-year veteran of CBS News, could earn the permanent job, while Jeff Glor, a frequent fill-in on CBS This Morning, and CBSN anchor Elaine Quijano, who moderated 2016’s vice presidential debate, also could be considered. Execs will look outside the news division as well, though a splashy, expensive hire from a competitor is not in the CBS News DNA (Katie Couric notwithstanding). Who will ultimately replace Pelley hinges as much on the pool of talent available and the requirements of the job (gravitas, hard-news bona fides) as it does on the future of the evening national newscast, once an American institution. As one insider puts it: “Ten years ago, we would have cared a lot more who was getting Walter Cronkite’s seat.”
This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.