Scott Pelley helps CBS carve an old-school news identity

By James Rainey

Los Angeles Times

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 7:00 p.m. MDT

Scott Pelley, anchor of "CBS Evening News," has helped CBS news return to form.

Carolyn Cole, Mct

NEW YORK — From the vintage globe projected behind the anchor desk to the Cronkite-era producers mixing it up at story meetings to the no-frills reports that fill 21 minutes and 16 seconds each weeknight, the "CBS Evening News" has made a determined effort to bring newsy back.

A shift that began in the latter months of Katie Couric's five-year run has accelerated and taken on a new fervor in the last nine months since the ascension of Scott Pelley to the anchor's chair.

When Pelley took the seat once occupied by Walter Cronkite last June, it represented a return to form at CBS News — giving perhaps the network's most visible platform not to a celebrity host but to a longtime reporter best known for his work on "60 Minutes" and for dozens of forays to Iraq, Afghanistan and other world hot spots.

In a recent interview in his office, where he kept Beethoven's Seventh at a low rumble, Pelley gave hints of a healthy competitive streak, as when he noted that his CBS team was alone among the networks in traveling to Afghanistan to cover the 10th anniversary of the war there.

"There are 150,000 American troops fighting every day in Afghanistan, and we are the only broadcast there?" he said. "That was astounding to me. Astounding."

The old-school approach offers at least some promise that the nightly newscast, long mired in third place among the three networks, might finally claw its way out of the cellar. The "CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley" is the only one of the three network nightly news shows to score a small year-to-year increase in three ratings categories for the season that began in September. In one recent week, it finished second — behind NBC but ahead of ABC — among the 25-to-54 age demographic prized by advertisers. That hadn't happened since 2006.

Still, at roughly 6.8 million nightly viewers, CBS' show remains more than 1 million behind the "World News With Diane Sawyer" at ABC and nearly 3 million behind NBC's "Nightly News With Brian Williams."

The media no longer cling to the results of the nightly news wars the way they used to. The public's appetite clearly has slackened for a set half-hour of news, at a fixed time early each evening. Viewers now scatter to myriad cable TV and Internet alternatives. Roughly 24 million Americans watch the marquee evening news shows now, compared to more than 40 million who tuned in two decades ago. The remaining viewers, more than one wag has noted, get bombarded with ads for gout treatments, heartburn ills and other products for the older demographic.

As both anchor and managing editor, Pelley has helped push the show toward hard news and, in particular, reporting on foreign affairs and the economic distress confronting Americans, said Andrew Tyndall, an analyst who tracks content on the news programs.

In a summary of coverage compiled last fall, Tyndall found the CBS show had aired more than 50 percent more economic coverage than either of its network rivals. ABC, leaning on Sawyer's background as a morning news host, tilted more toward features and "news you can use" service stories, the review found. Both newscasts often did features related to the news — presumably, in part, because those stories might have a longer afterlife on websites where they now get posted.

Williams' top-rated NBC news, meanwhile, has focused the most time on daily breaking news with a particular emphasis on storm and natural disaster coverage. (The network has a deep bench of reporters on those topics, given its Weather Channel subsidiary.)

Jeff Fager, elevated last year to chairman of CBS News, said he believes audiences still want an authoritative broadcast that sifts a cacophony of information to deliver the handful of key stories each day. And Pelley fits the traditional approach, Fager said, because the audience understands he has spent decades in the field. "There is no doubt he is in command," Fager said. "There is no doubt there is a certain credibility that is real, based on the experience he has had."

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