With the expected departure of Katie Couric from the anchor desk at CBS this summer, media observers are now wondering whether or not we have entered a post-anchor era and exactly what the value is of a news anchor to networks in a vastly changed landscape.
Shortly after the latest report surfaced that CBS and Couric were parting company, Slate’s Jack Shafer  opined that with a shrinking network news audience it really doesn’t matter who who sits behind the anchor desk:
Couric’s great misfortune was to become a broadcast network news anchor just as we were entering the post-anchor period…(T)he job and the audience aren’t what they were when John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and even Peter Jennings walked the earth. The explosion of news choices on cable and the Web have made the evening news an anachronism enjoyed mostly by an audience of older and less highly educated viewers, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.”
According to Shafer the network news programs have lost 55% of their audience since 1980 with 27% of it occurring in the last decade.
It was during the heyday of news reporting, before cable and the web, that you could count on an anchor staying in place for years and in the case of Brokaw, Cronkite and Rather, decades. As we have seen with the post-Jennings era at ABC and now with Couric, that model is history.
But it wasn’t Couric’s timing that led to her downfall. It was the poor decision on the part of CBS to take an entertainment reporter/anchor and try to transform her into a credible evening news anchor, where she foundered. Couric was used to covering a wide range of subjects in a 2-hour show and now she was being asked to focus on harder news in just 22 minutes every night. I don’t blame Couric for making the jump even though her skill set was a complete mismatch for her new role, which she probably realized. After all they were paying her $15 million a year.
Despite the shrinking audience numbers, the fact remains that the three evening programs still attract about 22 million total viewers per night. Even though it is an older audience it still dwarfs cable news in terms of audience size for any given show and can’t be ignored.
With CBS mired in third place it probably won’t make a big difference whether Couric’s replacement is Scott Pelley, Anderson Cooper or someone else.
Call it what you want, post-anchor or anchor-less news, but whatever name is used there is no doubt that the evening news is fast becoming less relevant to the general public, which translates to less influence on public policy and opinion, which is good news for fair and accurate reporting.