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Anchor Roulette

Can you pick the Next Big News Star? If so, you’re one up on CBS and ABC.

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The contenders: Anderson Cooper, Elizabeth Vargas, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson.  

Jonathan Klein, the boyish 47-year-old president of CNN, walks through the fourth-floor newsroom in the Time Warner Center with the supreme confidence of one who knows the Future of Television News will be reporting for duty down the hall in about ten minutes. And yet, as he later settles into his fifth-floor office, with a Central Park view on one side and a panel of TV screens on the other, Klein offers a more radical vision of the future.

“Within five years, people will be saying, ‘I want the news about Jordan,’ and they’ll type ‘Jordan’ into their handheld device and up will pop the news about Jordan that they want, nothing else,” says Klein as he sits opposite the panel of anchor-filled screens broadcasting the news in the format that has worked well for the past half-century. “There won’t be anchors. There won’t be people introducing the stories. Consumers won’t have the time or the need for that. They’ll just be getting the news they want, when they want it, in whatever form they want it.”

Hmmm, no anchors. That could be seriously bad news for a lot of good-looking men and women roaming freely around the Upper West Side; their lawyers, agents, and producers; and, of course, the newspaper and magazine reporters who devote their days to deconstructing the anchor business. Indeed, this may be the last magazine article you ever read about a TV news anchor. Enjoy it while it lasts.

What follows is a rough estimation of events as they pertain to the matter of the Anchor Wars. Yes, these are the Anchor Wars, an extended covert operation that will cost combatants hundreds of millions of dollars and last even longer than Ted Koppel’s hair. The broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—have all been forced, within a span of recent months, to contend with the loss of their longtime anchors. The death of ABC’s Peter Jennings from the ravages of lung cancer in August capped a nine-month period that included the retirements of NBC’s Tom Brokaw and CBS’s Dan Rather, plus a scandal surrounding a Rather story on 60 Minutes that turned out to be based on possibly phony documents. When ABC’s Koppel officially left his Nightline job last week (he’d left it in spirit a decade ago), it marked the passing of yet another unique and powerful voice in television news.

Even after Brokaw, NBC Nightly News—now with Brian Williams—maintains its perch as the top-rated of the three network newscasts, a position the show has held for 70 weeks. Two weeks ago, for example, 10.3 million people watched NBC Nightly News, compared with 9 million for ABC’s World News Tonight and 7.9 million for the CBS Evening News. “We spent two years preparing for Tom Brokaw’s departure, and it shows,” declares Steve Capus, acting president of NBC News. “The audience has really responded to Brian Williams. It clearly works.”

At ABC and CBS, choices need to be made, and soon. In the fifth-floor executive suite of 47 West 66th Street, ABC News president David Westin is working methodically to restore ABC’s stature as the top-rated news division, a distinction earned only sporadically in recent years by World News Tonight. Over at the nearly windowless CBS Broadcast Center—a converted milk barn at 524 West 57th Street—new CBS News president Sean McManus, also the head of CBS Sports, has settled in quickly to his first-floor office suite and to the most thankless task on his to-do list: getting a star—preferably Katie Couric—to lift CBS News out of the bottom of the ratings race, where it has comfortably resided for the past three years.

One of these two men will fail.

Life is tough for television news anchors these days, especially the ones who aren’t Anderson Cooper. Even Cooper’s having it rough lately; at last count, he’s down to only three or four fawning media profiles a week.

Much as the news chiefs might not want to admit it, Anderson Cooper is the best hope for the future, with Klein the behind-the-scenes architect of his ascendancy. Other networks have inquired about Cooper’s status, only to be reminded that his ironclad CNN contract lasts two more years. No matter what he might say about the future of television news, Klein knows there will still be anchors five years from now; that’s why he’s banking so heavily on Cooper, while he still has him under contract. Two weeks ago, the 38-year-old CNN star began hosting the two-hour-long Anderson Cooper 360° every weeknight at 10 p.m., combining the passion of Edward R. Murrow and the pacing of MTV into a jazzy, if still low-rated, package. No one can afford to be content anymore with the idea of a gray eminence (CBS chairman Les Moonves’s famous “voice of God”) behind a desk anymore, unless he’s prematurely gray.


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