The well-publicized departures of anchors Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw have turned into non-events for L.A. news executives, another sign that the days when network news influenced local TV ratings are pretty much over.
"Local stations succeed or fail on the strength of their local news, not on the strength of the (network) anchor chair, thank God," said Fred Young, senior vice president of news for New York-based Hearst-Argyle Television Inc., which owns 25 television stations.
Rather's departure next month as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" comes amid continued weak ratings for the KCBS (Channel 2) newscasts. The 6 p.m. "CBS 2 News" has a 3.67 percent average share of household viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research ratings data for the last three months. That trails KABC (Channel 7), which has an average 11 percent share, and KNBC (Channel 4), with an average 7.67 percent share.
CBS has named veteran Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer interim anchor of the news broadcasts, as network officials continue to deliberate on a permanent successor to Rather. Schieffer is expected to fill in for several months.
KCBS spokesman Mike Nelson declined to comment on the influence of network news on ratings. On Rather's permanent replacement, he said, "Since the network hasn't made a decision or made plans, I don't know if there is anything we can say."
But privately, local news executives downplay the significance of the changes. At NBC, the shift from Brokaw to Brian Williams hasn't resulted in any sharp ratings slippage. Last November, before Brokaw left, the network news had garnered an 8 percent share of local household viewership. In January, after Brokaw left, it had a 7 percent share.
For the last three months, "CBS Evening News'" held an average share of local household viewership of 4 percent, compared with 10.3 percent for "ABC World News Tonight" and 7.7 percent for "NBC Nightly News."
As ratings generators, programs that precede a newscast are typically valued over the ones that follow. In Los Angeles, that makes the impact of network news secondary to that of afternoon showings of "Dr. Phil" on KNBC, "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on KABC and "Judge Judy" on KCBS.
Unlike with Rather, whose departure was likely sparked by the mishandling of a "60 Minutes" report on President Bush's National Guard service, NBC viewers were given notice well in advance of the anchor change. KNBC executives declined to comment on what the anchor change means for ratings.
So far, advertisers don't anticipate major shifts.
"We are not seeing any red flags other than the typical declines due to other media options," said Zach Rosenberg, executive vice president of the West Coast arm of media services company Horizon Media Inc. Speaking of possible changes at CBS, he added, "You want to understand if they are holding their numbers."
The numbers point to a far different role for network news programs than was true 40 years ago when "The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite" and NBC's "Huntley-Brinkley Report" were pillars for station affiliates, whose own local news broadcasts were still in their infancy. At L.A.'s CBS affiliate, then KNXT, the Cronkite broadcast was paired with its own "The Big News" with Jerry Dunphy to provide a ratings powerhouse that has not been matched since.
"The proliferation of choices has made the consumer all the more cognizant that she or he can program his or her own evening," said Eric Braun, vice president of news at Montgomery, Ala.-based Raycom Media Inc., which owns about 40 television stations.
Anchor loyalty hasn't proven strong these days locally, either. Laura Diaz jumped to KCBS in 2002 from KABC, where she spent nearly two decades, a move that didn't stop KCBS' ratings from plunging 23 percent between November 2001 and November 2002. Dunphy's move to KCAL-TV (Channel 9) in 1989 as part of that station's prime time newscast provided only limited audience pull.
Still, local television remains the primary news source for most Americans. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed last year by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press regularly watch local news, while 38 percent regularly watch cable news and 34 percent turn to network news.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.