Is it time for 'And finally...'?

The three main news shows in America have lost 10 million viewers in 10 years. If a war can't save Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, what can? By James Silver
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With their painstakingly ponderous delivery, their age-defying career longevity (120 broadcasting years between them) and their telephone-number salaries, CBS's Dan Rather, ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw are the three titans of American television news and among the most familiar faces in the land.

For decades, their early-evening newscasts have dominated network news on the three main channels, reaching tens of millions of Americans. While presidents and celebrities have come and gone, the "big three" news anchors have endured, providing a reassuring presence through the nation's wars and crises. They are not so much part of their respective network's news brand as the very brand itself. For example, even when he is away on holiday and a stand-in presenter is in the chair, the early-evening news on NBC remains Nightly News with Tom Brokaw - his name firmly above the title.

But there is one story the big three will not be reading on their newscasts. That is the one about how, over the past decade, Americans - particularly the young - have been switching off network news in large numbers, leaving behind a greying audience with an average age of just under 60. According to Nielsen Media Research, in 1992-93 more than 38 million Americans tuned in to the early-evening news on one of the three networks. Ten years on (2002-03), that headline figure has slumped by 10 million to 28 million - a net loss of more than a quarter of the audience. Just over 10 per cent of Americans now watch the flagship network news programmes, compared with about 25 per cent of Britons.

Of the individual networks, over the past 10 years CBS Evening News with Dan Rather was the worst performer, losing 4.5 million viewers, more than a third of its audience; ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings also lost over four million; while even the strongest of the trio, NBC's Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, lost 1.2 million.

The latest available figures for June and July 2003 make further grim reading for network executives. An average of 24.1 million watched one of the three evening newscasts this summer - when the big, running story has been the bloody aftermath of war in Iraq. That is a fall of 1.1 million on the previous year.

And the bad news for the networks does not stop there. The remaining audience has been getting older. The average age of viewers for the early evening news programmes are 61 for CBS, 59 for ABC and 56 for NBC. No wonder that the commercial breaks are so taken up with ads for Viagra, home blood-pressure monitoring kits and varicose-vein treatments.

Bill Carter, television correspondent of The New York Times, says the flagship early-evening newscasts are facing apparently inexorable decline. "All the trends have been negative over the last decade or more, but in the last two to three years the fall has become more significant because it is occurring at a time of intense news interest," he says. "Almost incredibly, during the height of the action in Iraq, two of the networks were lower than they were the year before. The problem is the most acute at CBS News, where their audience has dropped to under seven million - some of the lowest numbers they have ever seen. There is a crisis at their news division."

Unsurprisingly, CBS News president Andrew Heyward dismisses such talk, recently telling the New York Daily News that he sees no "fundamental issues" with the programme. "I would call [the latest viewing figures] an issue to look at and not overreact to," he said.

However, a number of industry experts believe that the veteran anchors do not appeal to sought-after younger viewers. Baby-boomers and the MTV generation, they say, are far less likely to be loyal to silver-haired male newscasters than their parents and grandparents.

Steve Sternberg, vice-president at media buying agency Magna Global USA, says there are good arguments that Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, at 71 and 65 respectively, should follow the lead of 63-year-old Tom Brokaw, who recently announced that he would stand down as Nightly News anchor after the 2004 presidential election.

"There is no question the big three anchors' stature has waned," Sternberg says. "Walter Cronkite [Dan Rather's predecessor at CBS] was the most trusted man in America. But the audience has aged along with the anchors, and the big three are not as revered as they used to be. Cynicism has filtered over from local news, which is viewed as increasingly tabloid, and audiences have grown jaded."

CBS's Andrew Heyward denies that Rather will be forced to relinquish the anchor's chair any time soon. Similarly, sources claim there are currently no question marks hanging over Jennings's future at ABC News.

Bill Carter says ABC and CBS are right not to be panicked into ditching their brand-name anchors without lining up top-quality replacements. "I wouldn't write off any of these guys, they are still among the best network news has," he says. "Tom Brokaw is leaving at a high point. Peter Jennings is still a very solid, credible journalist with an enormous amount of international experience. Dan Rather is the one you have to question. If his news division was stronger, I think he'd be gone. But right now nobody could point to a single person who is of a similar stature."

Simply changing the anchors, continues Carter, would not halt the ratings slide.

There are a number of factors which made huge falls in audience all but inevitable. "All-day cable news means viewers no longer feel they have to watch in the evenings. Younger audiences are extremely reluctant to come to newscasts now that they have access to the internet all day. And Americans are working longer hours than ever before and are not available in the early evening."

Some on the political right cite another reason for the decline in audience numbers. They claim the networks are institutionally biased in favour of the left and that millions of ordinary Americans are seeing through spin and voting with their remote controls.

The success of the flag-waving, Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Channel is cited as evidence. In the past two years, Fox has leapt from a daily average of 0.6 million viewers tuning in at any one time in June/July 2001 to 1.3 million in the same months of 2003. But Fox alone cannot explain the disappearance of 10 million viewers. Whether audience losses are down to bias (perceived or actual), the internet, multi-channel competition or lifestyle changes, network news chiefs know that they must find ways to attract the MTV generation. But can the networks do this without scaring off the Viagra-popping parents?