One by one the Voices of God are signing off

Is this the end for the presenters of America's nightly news programmes, asks Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online

The Voices of God are falling silent. Suddenly, almost an entire generation of broadcast network news anchors - that uniquely American fusion of journalist, celebrity and national therapist - has disappeared.

The Voices of God are falling silent. Suddenly, almost an entire generation of broadcast network news anchors - that uniquely American fusion of journalist, celebrity and national therapist - has disappeared.

The phenomenon has never really crossed the Atlantic. Dimbleby père came close at times, but Britain's newsreaders occupy a more humdrum world, with no higher title to aspire to than "presenter". Not for them the separate universe occupied by their counterparts at NBC, CBS and ABC, all three of them in the job for 20 years, boasting $10m (£5.2m) salaries to prove it.

"When there is a crisis, our roles become almost ministerial. In a sense we are healers," Tom Brokaw, then anchor of NBC Nightly News, observed to an interviewer after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But now the familiar faces are no more. Brokaw - so ruggedly handsome, reassuring and trusted that he was mooted last year as a vice-presidential running mate for John Kerry - was the first to go, in December. Next out of the door was idiosyncratic Dan Rather at CBS Evening News.

But the two latest losses, of ABC's Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel, may be the most keenly felt. With the departure of his rivals at NBC and and CBS, Jennings must have imagined the way was clear for him to recapture the top ratings slot that Brokaw captured from him a decade ago. Instead, he has been stricken with lung cancer.

Unflappability has been his trademark. Dan Rather emoted; Tom Brokaw comforted - but in Jennings' case, the bigger the story, the cooler he became. Sometimes coolness verged on the supercilious. But he possessed that gift, so rare in television, of knowing when silence was better than words.

Canadian born and Canadian accented, Jennings went out of his way to remind American viewers they were not the only people inhabiting the planet.

Koppel, technically, was never one of the "Big Three" but was perhaps a better journalist than any of them - always polite but utterly undeferential, probing, stubborn and astringent.

His signature programme Nightline grew from a late-night spot created in 1979 to cover the crisis of the American hostages in Tehran into the most serious daily news show on network TV. But Nightline's ratings now lag well behind the frothier fare offered by its direct late-night competitors, NBC's Jay Leno and CBS's David Letterman. Koppel is leaving ABC when his contract expires in December, and Nightline may well be on its way with him.

So is network news dead? Yes, say those who point to tumbling audiences, shrinking network news divisions, and the increasingly featury content of the evening shows that were their flagships.

When Jennings, Rather and Brokaw first settled in their chairs in the early 1980s, only an infant CNN was around. These days there are at least three American 24-hour cable news channels, not to mention the BBC, the internet and the blogosphere. TV news in the 21st century is increasingly loud and fragmented - but the fragment still owned by the network nightly news is sober and elderly, as evidenced by the relentless advertisements for Viagra, incontinence pads and haemorrhoid treatments.But others disagree. To be sure, never again will they draw half of the entire national TV audience between them. Even so, five times more people (about 30 million) still watch the three network nightly news shows than the cable news channels combined.

The networks still do big events well; even without Jennings, ABC was widely reckoned to have covered the Pope's death and funeral better than any of its competitors.

More than even the most popular drama, sitcom or reality show, the anchors are the face of their networks. Most important, the nightly news shows still make pots of money. Even CBS Evening News, long trailing in the ratings, earns a reported $100m a year.

The format may change. The Voices of God may be replaced by a multiple-anchor heavenly choir. But the betting must be that the US nightly news will be around for a good while yet.