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Can A Second Anchor Steady The Cbs Evening News?


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CAN A SECOND ANCHOR STEADY THE CBS EVENING NEWS?

Forgive Dan Rather if he seemed a bit rattled in announcing that Connie Chung would soon join him as co-anchor of the CBS Evening News. He hasn't shared the spotlight since succeeding Walter Cronkite in 1981. Although Rather says he supports the arrangement, set to begin on June 1, he flubbed his reference to it on the May 17 telecast. Recovering with a smile, Rather sounded an upbeat note: "We think it will strengthen a broadcast we're already very proud of."

CBS says Chung's appointment is a bold attempt to propel the Evening News ahead of its rivals. But behind the brave words is a startling admission: CBS has concluded that it can't beat the competition using the single-anchor format. With Rather alone at the helm, the Evening News has become a generic presentation that varies little from its counterparts on ABC and NBC. CBS is tacitly admitting that short of making radical changes, it doesn't know how to catch ABC's Peter Jennings, who has held an unshakable lead in the audience ratings since 1989 (chart). "The sameness of the three broadcasts may make viewers feel less compelled to make new choices," says Howard Stringer, president of CBS Broadcast Group.

"DECLINING FORCE." The blurring of the news programs has coincided with a decline in their importance. With the national newscasts increasingly eclipsed by CNN and the local news, prime-time news magazines such as 60 Minutes and 20/20 have become the centerpieces of the networks' news operations. Before offering the co-anchor job to Chung, in fact, CBS News President Eric W. Ober says he sounded mut veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley. But Bradley opted to stay put.

Indeed, Rather favors the new arrangement because it frees him up to focus on his own magazine show, 48 Hours. He also wants to do more field reporting for the Evening News. And Chung, who was lured back from NBC in 1989 to do a magazine show, will divide her time between the news and a new prime-time magazine, Eye to Eye with Connie Chung. "The news shows are a declining force," says Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News, "so you put your stars where they give you the biggest bang for your buck."

CBS will air an unprecedented four news magazines next season. And network executives say they will generate a rough total of $100 million in revenue, almost as much as the Evening News. Without these shows, the news division would lose money. CBS's rivals are making similar commitments. To rescue its battered news division, NBC hired as its president Andrew Lack, a producer who worked most recently on the CBS news magazine Street Stories.

As they lose audience and influence, the network news shows have also lost some control over their own ratings. The ratings for World News Tonight, for example, are bolstered because many ABC affiliates air the Oprah Winfrey Show before the local news. Some of those viewers stick around to catch Jennings. While World News Tonight does best among younger and more urban viewers, rural and older viewers prefer the Evening News. Much of this, though, is because ABC's prime-time audience is younger than that of CBS.

"NEVER BE SECOND." Part of CBS's decline, too, is simply a function of Rather's personality. The 31-year CBS veteran still provides gutsy coverage of big stories such as the recent siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex. But viewers seem to prefer Jennings' silken style to Rather's this-just-in tone. Indeed, in the just-concluded 1992-93 TV season, Rather actually slipped further behind World News Tonight. Chung may make the show more appealing to female and younger viewers, says Betsy Frank, director of TV information at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising. CBS affiliates, who have agitated for such a change for several years, are also applauding.

CBS's move will put pressure on third-place NBC Nightly News. Industry executives say the network has considered pairing Brokaw with Katherine Couric, co-host of NBC's resurgent morning show, Today. But some rivals say NBC now risks looking like a copycat: "The rule in network news is: Never be the second to do something," says Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC's Nightline.

Not that CBS is the first to try dual anchors. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley pioneered the form on NBC in the 1960s. And Barbara Walters became a celebrity when ABC paired her with Harry Reasoner in 1976. ABC quickly broke up that team after Walters and Reasoner fought like spouses in an Edward Albee play. If Chung's move seems quieter, maybe it's because the buzz in broadcast news has moved elsewhere.Mark Landler in New York


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