Anchor Roulette

The contenders: Anderson Cooper, Elizabeth Vargas, Katie Couric and Charles Gibson.Photo: Illustrations by Joe Darrow

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.

The placeholder: Bob Schieffer.

The news now happens 24 hours a day and on dozens of channels, and the networks realize they must now cover it with dashing and passionate personalities, glitzy and informative graphics, and rapid-fire imagery just to keep our attention. Handheld devices, iPods, and computer screens will deliver the news to you, no matter where you happen to be. “If ABC News could figure out a way to broadcast the news onto your moles, then we would be working right now to send our programming directly to your moles,” the senior vice-president of ABC News, Paul Slavin, said over lunch at Nougatine, the Jean Georges front-room restaurant that functions as something of a network-news commissary. (Richard Leibner, the powerful television agent, stopped by to say hello.)

But before the next meeting of the Mole Broadcasting Subcommittee, Slavin and his boss, David Westin, have a tricky assignment ahead of them. They must figure out how to pick an anchor to be the future face of ABC News, to be the network’s go-to person when the big story hits—and to do so without annoying anyone in their stable of stars, or losing their loyal audience. They want to keep those numbers from eroding, while not sacrificing the huge earning power of Good Morning America.

And for Westin, that comes down to an agonizing personal decision—whether to grant the wish of the genial 62-year-old GMA co-host Charles Gibson and make him the anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight or give the job to 44-year-old green-eyed dreamboat Bob Woodruff or gorgeous 43-year-old new mom Elizabeth Vargas—both experienced reporters and anchors themselves, if not bona fide television personalities. The decision has been complicated by issues of loyalty, friendship, economics, and Diane Sawyer.

Gibson represents the Jennings school: He remains a classic twentieth-century anchorman-reporter with experience and gravitas who believes in comforting a nation from behind a desk in moments of high stress. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff stand—literally, when they do World News Tonight—for the network’s desire to make long-term changes, to go where the news is. They’re reasonably young, healthy, and ready to roll, if not rock.

In April, when 66-year-old ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings announced the lung-cancer diagnosis that permanently took him off World News Tonight, the network turned first to Gibson as anchor, with Woodruff and Vargas switching off. By September, the GMA co-host had tired of the grueling early-morning-to-night schedule—at one point he got pneumonia. Woodruff took over, and he and Vargas settled into a regular routine: She would anchor Monday through Wednesday, and Woodruff would assume the chair Thursday through Sunday. Vargas by this time had been anchoring for years, both on the weekends and as part of the new 20/20 anchor team; although she struck many observers as stiff and formal on-camera, ABC clearly saw serious potential.

In the weeks after Jennings’s death, the steady appearances of Woodruff and Vargas led executives at other networks to assume that they’d get the nod. By early November, Westin promised a decision in “weeks, not months.” But by then the weeks had already turned to months, and it was clear that Westin wasn’t going to hurry in making perhaps the most crucial decision of his career.

A reasonable argument could be made for giving the anchor job to Gibson. Of the three leading candidates, he’s by far the best known to audiences; unlike Woodruff and Vargas, Gibson has a built-in and substantial fan base from GMA. He’s been a loyal ABC foot soldier for most of his television career. He worked in Washington as a reporter before his first tour of duty as a GMA co-host began in 1987. He stayed in that job (partnered with Joan Lunden) until 1998. Gibson believed he’d been passed over for other opportunities—and the chance to stay at GMA—because Roone Arledge, then president of ABC News, didn’t favor him.

“Roone doesn’t like the cut of my jib,” Gibson would complain to colleagues. Westin replaced Arledge in 1997—and executed a famously botched remake of GMA with trivia-game answers Lisa McCree and Kevin Newman. In 1999, he persuaded Gibson and Sawyer to sign on for a three-month stint to save GMA.

The two remain on the job six years later, having earned more than $100 million in annual profits for the Walt Disney Company (the corporate owner of ABC) and big raises for themselves with their breezy, urban-oriented broadcast. Sawyer now earns an estimated $12 million for her ABC duties (she remains affiliated with PrimeTime, though she has contributed almost nothing for the Thursday-night newsmagazine show yet this season), and industry sources put Gibson’s compensation at around $8 million. GMA’s success in closing in on the Today show has given Gibson the stature to demand a reward for his loyalty.

The young old guys: Bob Woodruff and Brian Williams.

But not being the demanding type, Gibson has returned to his full-time GMA duties and let Woodruff and Vargas have World News Tonight to themselves. Still, he’s let it be known to his bosses that he wants the job, according to ABC sources. And Westin—who owes his longevity at ABC largely to the success of the Sawyer-Gibson pairing in the morning—has to weigh his loyalty to Gibson against the cost of his departure from GMA.

And, of course, Westin knows his decision will have a huge impact on his most important relationship at ABC News—the intense and personal one he has with the news division’s most powerful and opinionated star, Diane Sawyer. As eager as Westin might be to mint a new news-division celebrity, he’s reluctant to upset the biggest one he’s got. She wants nothing more than to overtake Today in the ratings, and the possible loss of her co-host to World News Tonight might hurt her chances.

The conflict represents one more thorny dimension to the complex relationship between Sawyer and Gibson, whose professional marriage has many of the problems of a real one; indeed, one might argue that Gibson should have walked out on his TV wife years ago. Sawyer gets things done her way at GMA; for years, Gibson suffered as Sawyer’s alliance with then–executive producer Shelley Ross put him in a subservient position, according to ABC sources. Things got better for Gibson with the arrival of former NBC producer Ben Sherwood—a best-selling novelist who led the most recent (and largely successful) charge up the Today show mountain—but it remains an uneasy romance.

The subject of Sawyer’s own possible anchor ambitions bubbled to the surface on the morning of October 24, when readers of Broadcasting & Cable saw this headline: SAWYER? GIBSON? WESTIN’S DILEMMA HEATS UP. The article went on to report that ABC insiders were “buzzing over Diane Sawyer’s apparent interest in the blue-chip slot.” It contended that Sawyer’s desire had been sparked by Katie Couric’s talks with CBS chair Les Moonves about the anchor job and that “observers began detecting that [Sawyer] had started campaigning for the job.” The article included an adamant denial from ABC News communications vice-president Jeffrey Schneider, who said flatly that Sawyer was “not a candidate” to succeed Jennings.

David Westin can’t figure out how to keep everyone happy—including himself. The only consolation is that CBS News has it even worse.

The Michael’s lunch crowd immediately went to work trying to decipher Sawyer’s intentions. Her colleagues theorized that she leaked the item herself to remind ABC management of its constant need to please her, despite no real desire for the job. Associates suggested that Sawyer, as the network’s most powerful news star, wanted her name in the mix. “Does she know what she wants? Not a clue,” one old confidant of Sawyer’s explained. “Does she need to be wanted? By everyone, constantly.” Others argued that Sawyer was embarrassed by the story, which forced ABC to formally pull her name out of contention.

Officially, all ABC News will now say is that Sawyer remains a loyal and important part of the news team and that she was never a candidate for anchor. “From the first moment Peter Jennings became sick, Diane offered to do whatever she could to help,” says Westin (his only comment for this article). “But she regards her responsibility to GMA as the most important part of her job.”

What’s clear is that Westin can’t figure out how to keep everyone happy—including himself. The only consolation is that CBS News has it even worse.

In the eight months since Dan Rather left the CBS Evening News, the news division has made no discernible progress toward picking a permanent replacement. Moonves, who’s tried unsuccessfully to woo Katie Couric in the past, will likely make a huge play for the Today show superstar when her contract expires in May 2006. She currently earns $13 million a year (a reflection of the $250 million the Today show contributes to the bottom line of General Electric, NBC’s corporate parent), and a CBS deal would have to involve a hefty increase. But Couric’s preference may be to try syndication; it’s an easier lifestyle, and a format well suited to her talents. Oprah Winfrey has committed herself to keeping her hugely profitable daytime talk show on television only through 2011. Winfrey’s estimated net worth of more than $1 billion gives Couric something to mull over on her way to work in the gloomy midtown darkness.

Katie Couric is CBS’s best shot, its only shot, and its long shot all rolled into one; she’s endured slags from just about every quarter (including this magazine) and remained No. 1. After years of not preparing for the departure of Dan Rather, CBS found itself with no viable options when that day got moved up in the wake of the 60 Minutes documents scandal of September 2004. Moonves had never warmed to early front-runners Scott Pelley and John Roberts, and who else was there? Mika Brzezinski? Lara Logan? Byron Pitts? It seemed a paltry assortment for a news division that once boasted the best lineup of news stars on television—“Like being admitted to the mother church,” is how Mike Wallace recently described joining the team that once included Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Charles Kuralt. The last A-list stars to emerge from the CBS News stable were Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira, both now at ABC. By the way, either of them would also do nicely for CBS if Couric said no; however, both of them would likely say no, too.

The eminence gise: Walter Cronkite.

People who know Katie Couric say they don’t know what she’ll do—and suggest that Couric doesn’t know yet, either. She may allow herself to be wooed for a while; her agent, Alan Berger of Creative Artists Agency, has been suggesting around town that his client is seriously weighing the possibility of moving to CBS. And it’s conceivable that CBS would commit to the $15 million-a-year salary it would probably take to hire Couric, as well as the additional millions she would demand that the network pump into the news division to support her. One rival network estimate put the CBS bill for hiring Couric at $50 million, which would include the cost of grabbing talent from other networks, Roone Arledge style.

Still, it would be hard for her to leave NBC. She owes her career to Jeff Zucker, the former Today executive producer who now runs the network, and in some ways to the show itself. Even her competitors acknowledge her gifts as a morning-television personality and her tremendous worth to NBC. “When you think of NBC, you don’t think of Brian Williams,” a competing producer says. “You think of Katie.” She has become a pop-culture icon for a generation of American women. Her boyfriends, her hair, her salary, her legs—all of it has become the stuff of legend.

Should she quit it all just to be the Queen of CBS? Imagine the possibilities: She would rule the news division, earn untold millions, do pieces for 60 Minutes, and even get a syndicated show from Viacom one day, maybe around when Oprah retires in 2011. But does she need the aggravation of anchoring a nightly newscast and being on call 24 hours a day? Does she want to be on the air for hours at a time during special events, having producers yell into her earpiece? “Let’s put it this way: If Katie Couric is CBS’s plan A,” an NBC News executive remarks, “I sure hope they have a plan B.”

They don’t. ABC has successfully raided the talent roster of CBS over the past two decades, leaving no star power whatsoever. The layoffs during the years Laurence Tisch ran CBS left permanent, searing holes in the reporting roster that former news chief Andrew Heyward never repaired. The few remaining stars in the CBS News lineup—the 60 Minutes warhorses Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Dan Rather, and Andy Rooney—are all over 60 years old, and in some cases over 80. No anchor candidate has ever emerged from 60 Minutes—despite a commonly held misconception, Ed Bradley never seriously discussed the job with CBS—and the most recent generation of CBS reporters has produced no future anchors, either. In-house enthusiasm over 34-year-old foreign correspondent Lara Logan—a relative newcomer who’s been promised a prominent spot on a revamped CBS Evening News With Your Name Here—reflects just how slim the pickings have become.

Much of the problem originated with Andrew Heyward’s famous “tin eye” when it came to casting news stars. In almost ten years in charge of CBS News, Heyward never once discovered a true star; right after he got the job in 1996, bad picks like former U.S. congresswoman Susan Molinari and the $25 million Bryant Gumbel disaster revealed Heyward’s weakness in the talent end of the business. The problem continued to haunt him throughout his tenure; more recently, he passed on the chance to expand an arrangement between 60 Minutes and Anderson Cooper and to hire Bob Woodruff as a correspondent.

The problems at CBS News extend beyond the issues of its evening newscast. The division still suffers from ratings weaknesses across its schedule: It has no weeknight prime-time newsmagazine, and The Early Show continues to lag behind the behemoths. (Only the Sunday-morning talk show Face the Nation has gained audience share.) Unfortunately, even within CBS News there’s a defeated feeling—the sense that every day with Bob Schieffer behind the anchor desk (he’ll be there at least until the end of 2005, and likely longer) represents another day without a vision for the future.

“To say that CBS News is in chaos at the moment,” says one top CBS News correspondent, “is to vastly understate the situation.”

You remember Walter Cronkite, right? He’s 88 years old and still alive and well. CBS News made him its anchorman in 1962 to replace Douglas Edwards, who’d been anchoring the fifteen-minute nightly newscast since the late forties. Faced with competition from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the NBC anchor team, CBS recognized that Edwards wasn’t a star. They liked this fellow Cronkite: He was one of Murrow’s boys, he had the deep and authoritative voice of an anchor, and he seemed good at looking into the camera and conveying trust. A decade later, Cronkite brought his own brand of Murrow-like passion and point of view to the evening news. Landmark investigations by Cronkite into Watergate and Vietnam—along with his second-to-none nightly newscast—made him the definition of a television news anchor.

The 800-pound gorilla: Diane Sawyer.

Cronkite always says what he thinks; that has always been a part of his charm, of which he has plenty. (The recently widowed Cronkite is currently dating Carly Simon’s sister Joanna, who’s about twenty years his junior.) But at an October 20 Freedom Broadcasting Foundation event at the Museum of Television & Radio, his 21st-century audience, which included several students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, winced when he answered one of the students’ questions: Could a woman now anchor a nightly network newscast?

“I wish they could take a listen to hear how they sound,” Cronkite said of women television news personalities, according to a student taking notes at the session. Several students recalled Cronkite saying that women newscasters talk in “too high a register” for television, though he added that they could learn to lower their voices.

The last A-list stars to emerge from the CBS News stable were Diane Sawyer and Meredith Vieira, both now at ABC.

Cronkite has reason to be cranky. He is one of a “greatest generation” of former anchors who still wander the hallways of our news divisions like escapees from Jurassic Park. Cronkite was long ago exiled to a suite of offices on the nineteenth floor of Black Rock, CBS’s corporate headquarters on West 52nd Street, just a few doors down from Moonves; he got sent there after Dan Rather, his 1981 replacement, took over the CBS Evening News.

Now a similar punishment has been meted on Rather himself. With a year left on his contract with the network, Rather still has an office and producers at 60 Minutes, but no one’s taking bets on his renewal. It took until November 13 for Rather to get on 60 Minutes this fall, with a standard-issue interview of TV personality and New York Magazine columnist James J. Cramer; finished segments on Lebanon and North Korea still haven’t aired. Lara Logan beat Rather onto 60 Minutes this season with a story that aired in a prestigious slot at the start of the November sweeps.

But Rather still goes to work with the determination to make his mark he had as a young reporter in the sixties; so do many of the legends of CBS News, who remain vibrant if not valuable. And so does the spirit of Edward R. Murrow, whose pioneering work as a network news personality in the fifties created the prototype for the modern-day news anchor. But what the recent George Clooney movie Good Night, and Good Luck reminded us about Murrow was that he threw his beliefs into his work in a way that so few do in television anymore. He supported the network business plan (which required him to regularly interview celebrities) because it gave him the freedom to embrace risky causes and difficult stories. It’s hard to imagine another Murrow emerging from these latest skirmishes in the Anchor Wars—another personality as partisan and passionate.

But then, maybe viewers aren’t looking for one.

Even amid seismic shifts in the anchor population, network news ratings have remained relatively stable. The reasons are varied and speculative; some think viewers once alienated by the strong, distinctive personalities of men like Jennings and Rather have returned to ABC and CBS to check out the new, milder-mannered newscasts. Ironically, both networks have reported modest ratings gains since their top anchor jobs opened up. And despite a slight post-Brokaw slip, NBC’s continued domination gets attributed to both advance planning and perfect casting: Brian Williams looks as though he’s been anchoring newscasts since he was a 9-year-old in front of the bathroom mirror.

In the end, everyone agrees the future depends not so much on the face of the anchor as the shape of the broadcast. “We can always make great candles,” says Paul Slavin of ABC, “but it’s the lightbulb that makes the difference.”

A brief cease-fire in the Anchor Wars was called on the morning of September 20, as the combatants filed into Carnegie Hall to mourn the death of the man many thought was the greatest television news anchor of the twentieth century. Although Brokaw’s books may have sold more and Cronkite may have been more trusted, no one knew better how to talk extemporaneously into the camera—and with uncommon ease and intelligence—than Peter Jennings. There they were: Rather, Brokaw, Walters, Koppel, Sawyer, Couric, Lauer, Gibson, Moonves, Heyward, Woodruff, and Vargas among the thousands who jammed the concert hall for more than two hours, listening intently to the testimonials from friends, the touching slide-show tribute, the Scottish bagpipes, and the Yo-Yo Ma cello performance. It was a deeply moving event that left most in tears.

But other, more complex emotions were at work in the cavernous concert hall that morning—questions and doubts that played in the minds of the celebrities who sat quietly and in awe of the tribute’s majestic sweep. From the perspective of one network executive who has observed these news stars from across a desk, it was more than a memorial service: It was also a day of reckoning for the news business, a turning point for TV personalities who wanted their lives to stand for something more than just ratings points or multi-million-dollar salaries or magazine covers.

The executive looked around that day at all those famous faces he knew and could tell exactly what they were thinking. They were asking themselves, What kind of memorial service will I have? Will it last for two hours? Will they show film clips? Will there be bagpipes and Yo-Yo Ma? As they were sitting there, they were realizing—all of them—that what got Peter Jennings to this place of recognition and respect wasn’t ratings or money but passion and skill and a sense of purpose. They left the service that day wanting to be remembered and having been reminded of the special kind of immortality reserved for whoever sits in a network’s anchor chair. On 9/11, America turned to its anchors for comfort; their knowledge and presence calmed a grieving and unnerved nation. The kingdom may be shrinking, but it still has its throne.

Anchor Roulette