NEW YORK (AP) — Long consigned to the evening news ratings basement, CBS News figures it can’t hurt to take some chances.
The first was the appointment of a new anchor, Norah O’Donnell, who takes over Monday at the start of what promises to be a busy midsummer week. The second comes in November, when the “CBS Evening News” leaves New York for Washington, D.C.
CBS News President Susan Zirinsky is bullish on the advantages the moves will offer, and says CBS will guard against any temptation to become Washington-centric. That’s a consideration for a broadcast where its strongest markets competitively are in the middle of the country.
“Why not try something that could distinguish us and have the ability to bring us closer to the people who make decisions that are in the news?” said Zirinsky, who enjoyed nearly 20 years working in CBS’ Washington bureau. “That’s not constricting. That’s liberating. That opens channels for us.”
The “CBS Evening News” has been behind ABC and NBC in the ratings for decades, through anchors Dan Rather, Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer, Scott Pelley and Jeff Glor. This season, ABC’s “World News Tonight” is averaging 8.7 million viewers, NBC’s “Nightly News” is at 8.1 million and CBS is at 6 million, the Nielsen company said. Behind Glor, the gap widened: CBS’ drop of 5% in viewership from last year is steeper than the others, who had little change.
Dismissed by many in television for its older audiences, the evening newscasts are still durable institutions. Even the “CBS Evening News” routinely draws more eyeballs than attention-seeking cable news hosts.
O’Donnell, 45, spent seven years on “CBS This Morning,” but her roots are in Washington reporting. She covered the White House for both CBS and NBC, and got her start in the business following Congress at Roll Call.
Back in Washington, she’ll be able to call sources and take lunches for quick updates on stories. The proximity to power is important, since so many stories have Washington roots. Perhaps it can help O’Donnell land an interview with President Donald Trump; rivals Lester Holt at NBC and George Stephanopoulos at ABC have had memorable sessions.
Zirinsky said she’d been considering moving the evening newscast to Washington even before deciding to replace Glor with O’Donnell.
She’s impressed that O’Donnell, who will also be managing editor of the broadcast, has a genuine curiosity about the news. That may sound simple, but not every anchor has that, she said.
“I’m fascinated by the amount of material she can take in, synthesize and reveal to the audience in a meaningful, understandable way,” she said.
On Tuesday, O’Donnell is set to travel to Florida, marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. CBS hopes that will neatly tie her in the audience’s mind to network history, since many Americans experienced space travel through the words of legendary anchor Walter Cronkite.
O’Donnell grew up in San Antonio — between her, Pelley, Schieffer and Rather, Texas roots seem to be another tradition for CBS News anchors.
“I believe in this broadcast and the legacy of this broadcast,” O’Donnell said. “I do think that the truth is under attack, that journalism is under attack, that civility is under attack and I think we can help change that. I think we need to be the most trusted broadcast in America.”
Her family has a military background, and that will be felt in the broadcast: The regular feature “Profiles in Service” will introduce people who serve the country in some way. Veteran producer Al Ortiz is also working on a new regular segment on climate change. Transfers of staff members from “60 Minutes” and “CBS Sunday Morning” are aimed at beefing up the broadcast’s investigative muscle and writing.
A mother of three, O’Donnell is the third woman after Couric and Diane Sawyer to be a solo host of a network evening newscast, and she expects that will help offer perspective.
“The broadcast is going to be more urgent,” she said. “Strong writing will always be a hallmark and substantive reporting about politics — not who is up by a point or two in the latest poll.”
She’ll offer information, not affirmation, she said.
“People are hungry right now for straight-ahead news,” Zirinsky said. “We’re not coming at you with a point of view. We don’t have an adjunct part of our network that has a point of view.”
Following Monday’s debut, the big change — the move to Washington — will come after a new studio is built there and an executive producer is named for the broadcast.