Monday’s CBS Evening News had Dan Rather coming to us from Baghdad. There was the legendary anchor, clad in his familiar exotic-locale outfit, framed by the skyline of the Iraqi capital, welcoming viewers to the scene of historic elections a day earlier and introducing the packages filed by CBS correspondents.
It was all very exciting. But it wasn’t live.
Rather’s words were taped an hour or two in advance, says a CBS spokeswoman, who notes that CBS didn’t say it was live, and adds that Rather was standing by as the tape rolled in case of breaking news. “Most of the news has already happened at the time the Evening News occurs,” says Donna Dees, the CBS spokeswoman. “All the networks do this,” she adds.
That seems to be the case: When the big anchors go overseas, they sometimes pre-tape their shows because of the time difference or the risk of a satellite problem in the middle of a live show. A CBS producer tells me the practice is dubbed “look live.”
So, contrary to the title of Rather’s memoir, the camera does blink. This was news to me, although the people I asked about it seemed surprised I was in the dark—perhaps it’s common knowledge. Indeed, Dees points out that even when Rather is in New York, the West Coast usually sees a tape of the live news we East Coasters already watched.
In any case, does it matter? Does it make any difference if a richly paid anchor leads into pre-taped packages live or on tape himself? Maybe not. But if it doesn’t matter whether they are live or taped, why have Rather or Brian Williams or Peter Jennings in Baghdad anyway? Why even have them in New York?
These are the type of existential questions that media sorts have been asking since December, when Rather announced his plans to retire come March, and Tom Brokaw gave up the NBC desk to Williams. With ratings slipping amid competition from Internet news and 24/7 cable channels, the network evening broadcasts seem like dinosaurs that haven’t noticed the meteor. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, ratings for the network newscasts are off 34 percent over the past 10 years and down 59 percent since 1969. Rather’s departure, coming as it will after the 60 Minutes Wednesday memos fiasco, has framed the question for the networks: What do we try next?
CBS postponed its attempt at an answer by announcing this week that Bob Schieffer, the avuncular and trusty Face the Nation host, will take over for Rather on an interim basis. This gives CBS prez Les Moonves more time to figure out how to revamp the evening news format. Moonves has floated the idea of using multiple anchors. Outsiders have proposed more radical alternatives, like switching the evening news to a magazine format or scrapping the show entirely.
The latter suggestion is tempting for those of us who have mocked the Big Three newscasts for years for their soft stories, neglect of foreign news, and downright silliness (“Wow! Tom Brokaw is standing up!”). But as obsolete as the Big Three newscasts seem in the era of satellite TV, multiple cable news outlets, and online alternatives from the BBC to blogs, the evening news shows actually could be more useful now than during TV’s golden days. They could serve as a meeting place for the fractured audiences of other media, a common ground of news, and a place where the “national conversation” (a silly term but an essential thing) takes place.
But to play that part, the evening news shows probably have to drop the gimmicks. Maybe audiences are still thrilled to have the news beamed into their living rooms live from Baghdad, Beijing, and elsewhere. But if it’s just a tape, viewers would probably rather be blogging.