Turn on the network news most any weeknight and you’ll see one man, center stage, behind the anchor desk.

That’s the way it’s been for more than two decades. But now the scene is being shaken up, first by the retirement of NBC’s Tom Brokaw, 64, on Dec. 2 and now by the exit of CBS’ Dan Rather, 73, who anchors his final newscast on Wednesday – 24 years to the day after he succeeded Walter Cronkite in the job.

With ABC’s Peter Jennings, 66, as the only one of the veteran anchors remaining in place, some see this as a watershed moment in broadcast news, or perhaps a waterloo.

CBS, stuck in a distant third place in the ratings, is even taking Rather’s retirement as an opportunity to talk about upending the staid single-anchor system.

“We’re almost starting from ground zero,” says network boss Les Moonves. “Anything can happen. We may bring in the cast of “Friends.”‘

But whether network news is really broken, and if so how to fix it, is a question very much in dispute.

By the numbers, viewership of the networks’ evening newscasts has dropped steadily. In 1982, the year both Brokaw and Jennings began anchoring, 72 percent of Americans regularly watched a network newscast. Now, only 30 percent do.

Young viewers, the holy grail for advertisers, now largely report getting their news elsewhere, from a smorgasbord of choices on cable and the Internet or, increasingly, from late-night comedy shows such as Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”

Nevertheless, the network newscasts are “still the No. 1 single source of news for Americans,” NBC’s Brian Williams points out. “It’s still a very, very large audience.”

One recent week, “we had 11 million people watching us on any given night, which is not where it was 10 years ago, I will grant you that,” says Steve Capus, executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.” “On the other hand, that’s an enormous audience.”

So far, changes to the network news picture have been less than dramatic. As long planned, NBC installed Williams in Brokaw’s seat. CBS announced that veteran Bob Schieffer would take over on an interim basis.

Still, CBS is taking Rather’s retirement from the anchor desk as an opportunity to consider what it can do to boost “The Evening News,” which has slipped more in the ratings than its rivals and now trails leader NBC by some 3 million viewers nightly.

“This is a time of change in all of network news when you have Brokaw and Rather leaving within six months of each other,” Moonves told TV critics meeting in Los Angeles in January. “There’s a big, big shift in the evening news and how people are looking at their news.”

Should the shift mean one anchor or several? Longer, more in-depth stories to provide context, as CBS News President Andrew Heyward is reportedly pitching? Or a faster pace and shorter stories that would attract a younger audience?

“Right now, the average age of the news watcher is way over 45,” Moonves said. “We have people 30 years old not watching the evening news.” As opposed to “that guy preaching from the mountaintop,” CBS is looking at making the newscast “more relevant, making it younger and attracting new viewers.”

Suspicious minds think Moonves’ comments were less about reinventing the wheel and more about distracting attention from the “Memogate” embarrassment, which pushed Rather to set a date for his retirement from “The CBS Evening News.” (He’ll stay on as a “60 Minutes” correspondent.)

Fallout from the incident, in which a report on President George Bush’s National Guard service relied on documents that turned out to be forged, continued right up to Rather’s departure and cast a shadow on plans for a retirement special (set for 8 p.m. EST Wednesday) honoring his many years in the news business. So did a controversial article in the New Yorker in which some colleagues – including “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace and former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite – criticized Rather’s on-air style. Cronkite went so far as to say he didn’t watch Rather.

“If you’re in a three-network race and you come in third, then the public is against you,” “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt is quoted as saying.

But even for a network stung by scandal and desperate to build viewership, throwing out the single-anchor format might be going too far, if CBS would truly even consider it, many believe.

CBS tried double anchors in 1993, pairing Connie Chung with Rather in a two-year experiment widely considered a disaster. The last to try a multiple-anchor scheme was ABC, which in 1978 split anchor duties among Frank Reynolds (in Washington), Max Robinson (in Chicago) and Peter Jennings (in London). That lasted until 1983, when Jennings began soloing.

The single-anchor format is still in place, after all these years, “because it works,” says Williams.


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