Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A Rather Odd Fight


So Dan Rather is shocked, shocked at the "dumbing down" and "tarting up" of the CBS Evening News?

Courage, Dan, Courage.

Rather has been at both ends of a tough transition on the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News. Walter Cronkite, who Rather replaced, wasn't pleased about being shown the door for Rather. Rather himself was the object of more scorn than perhaps any anchor in the history of television and left under a cloud over story the news division withdrew.

After a year of temporary service by Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Scheiffer, Rather was officially replaced by "Today" show host Katie Couric -- whose intro is read by Cronkite, back from oblivion. Couric's numbers have been at historical lows, a distant third amnng the Bog Three with about six million viewers, sometimes fewer.

Producers have more to do with what we see on the air than anchors, even when they are, as is usually the case on the networks, also managing editor of the broadcast. It was hysterical to see cable anchors not only 
belittle their own networks' coverage of the Paris Hilton story but to dump on Hilton herself out of frustration or disgust. The "story" marched on -- even when MSNBC didn't exactly get what it bargained for in a live interview with Tommy Chong -- because the behind-the-scenes executives run the show.

A Network Premonition

But the dimunition of network began a long time ago, and Rather was part of era of the greatest slide. It wasn't always the case that sweeping music was used to open the show or score stories, that anchors walked around the set, that epileptic-fit-inducing graphics became necessary for every segment. These are all forms of tarting up, of trying to keep a dwindling audience's attention. How close we are to what was considered preposterous in "Network" 30 years ago is beyond scary.

Rather himself was often an object of ridicule, and not just by right-wingers. For a time he began sporting sweater vests under his jacket for no apparent reason. He was picked apart as women on-air talent always is. For about a week it 1986 he signed off the program by saying "Courage," a couple of times in Spanish.

Look: Broadcast TV network news is an easy target. It has been losing viewers and skewing older for more than a generation. Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and Keith Olbermann have minted the winning format for the next generation by zeroing in on hypocricy and lies without taking their own pontification seriously. It's the story, stupid.

The status quo isn't going to bring in younger viewers and the evening network news may never rebound. But, with apologies to Andrew Tyndall, it also true that the personality -- the appeal -- of the anchor has more to do with a network newscast's ratings success than the amount of "hard news" it covers or the quality of its soft stories or features like CBS's now-abandoned "Free Speech." Octogenarian Scheiffer had better numbers than either Rather or Couric, and passed-over Charles Gibson is leading the Big Three pack.

You Don't Know About News

So, what has Rather's goat at this stage of the Game? Can he still harbor a bit of bitterness at his don't-let-the-door-hit-you-in-the-ass departure? Does he, as many thought when he shared the stage Connie Chung, have a thing about women anchors (at least in his roost)? Or was it not a shot at Couric, per se, as he says in his escalation of the feud, but really at Les Moonves, the head of CBS whom, Rather asserts, "doesn't know about news?" Even if, Moonves hired Couric, so ...

There are bad feelings at the old shop. CBS Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan told TVNewser that "A lot of the people that he was criticizing when he was criticizing the product, they believe in Katie and they believe in the show. These are people who put their bodies on the line when he was [the anchor], and they felt really disappointed that he felt the need to do something like this."

Rather, who often found himself in the center of a storm, may be doing his old network a favor. Nobody likes a petty attack -- clever of Moonves to frame it that way -- and Rather isn't exactly beloved, or even widely seen anymore as the face of HDNet. This may get a few more eyeballs to glance over CBS's way to see what the fuss is all about. Look for a bump in the numbers.

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