Jessell | Is O’Donnell The Answer To CBS’s News Woes?
Do you feel the excitement, the anticipation, the expectation of fresh, compelling television?
You know what, neither do I.
This evening, at 6:30 p.m. ET, Norah O’Donnell will make her debut as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, and I doubt anybody outside of Black Rock and the O’Donnell family are all that pumped up about it.
Remember the drumroll that Katie Couric got back in 2006. Her first night was preceded by a six-city “listening tour” that ostensibly was intended to inform her management of the news, but was really a promotional tour. (It ended at the summer TV critics confab in Pasadena.)
And in 2006, it was a bigger deal because the evening newscasts were a bigger deal. Cable news had cut deeply into their power and influence, but not yet social media.
What’s more, Couric was going to be stepping in for a true giant of broadcast news — Dan Rather, who, love him or hate him, manned the desk for a quarter century and was a living, breathing link to Walter Cronkite who defined the job of anchor in the sixties and seventies when CBS News’s eminence was unchallenged.
CBS had high hopes for Couric. With all the goodwill accumulated during her run at NBC’s Today, the network believed, she would recapture the ratings that Rather had frittered away and make the CBS Evening News No. 1 again.
But we all know how that ended. Couric walked away in 2011 with CBS more or less in the same place it had been when she started — last.
By contrast, O’Donnell comes at a time when CBS seems to be flailing for a solution to the flagging fortunes of its flagship broadcast.
O’Donnell will be the third anchor that CBS has thrown into the breach since Couric. The other two were Scott Pelley (2011-2017) and Jeff Glor (2017-19). As their short tenures indicate, they were unable to improve CBS’s ratings performance. (Bob Schieffer, Anthony Mason and others have gotten turns during the transitions.)
O’Donnell, 45, certainly has the credentials for the job, having spent one decade at NBC and another at CBS reporting and anchoring in a variety of prominent roles.
I got to know her mostly on CBS This Morning, her base for the past several years, and appreciate how she, Gayle King and, yes, the wayward Charlie Rose strove for a more serious, journalistic rundown and tone than their rivals.
The 45-year-old mother of three checks all the boxes for news anchor — intelligent, articulate, telegenic and empathetic. But the real measure of O’Donnell — or any other anchor — is how they do in covering a crisis when there is no script, emotions are running high and no one is sure what is happening or what might happen next.
We will judge her when those crises inevitably and sadly arise. (She is fortunate that Hurricane Barry spared New Orleans a direct hit. Had it not, O’Donnell might have been forced to scrap her inaugural plans [see below], grab her waders and head for Bourbon Street.)
In interviews last week, O’Donnell and CBS News President Susan Zirinsky talked about how the new CBS Evening News will be better than ever, playing it straight down the middle and excelling not only at breaking news, but also at you-heard-it-hear-first enterprise reporting.
“We want to focus stories where we can add something,” Zirinsky told the Los Angeles Times. “Do I need to give you a story that you’ve heard all day and there isn’t anything new? No, I don’t. Everybody on the planet is getting their news on their phone. What I do is that the stories we bring you are sticky — that the stay with you.”
In the same article, O’Donnell made this pitch: “If you want affirmation, you can turn on a cable channel. If you want information, turn on the CBS Evening News.”
Susan, Norah, I hear you, but you are going to have to show me. My hunch is that the CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell will be the much same show as the CBS Evening News with [fill in the blank].
It has been my experience that the only fix that TV news executives and producers come up with for slack ratings is a new face. If not Couric, then Pelley. If not Pelley, then Glor. And if not Glor, then O’Donnell.
Oh, sometimes they throw in new opening theme music and graphics as if they are going to make a difference.
That’s why I (and a lot of other people, I think) can’t get too worked up about this evening.
I am waiting for one of the networks to break the mold, to actually reformat the evening show, put real money into investigative reporting and present stories in a way that might risk the old audience in the hope of acquiring a larger and younger one.
From everything I’ve heard, that doesn’t sound like where O’Donnell and Zirinsky are going.
I will give them a few points for one significant change. Starting in November, the broadcast will emanate from Washington rather than New York for the first time.
It makes sense. With Trump’s unprecedented ability to upstage just about anything other than a major disaster, rarely do any of the network broadcasts go by without Washington and politics getting ample minutes. Why not be the middle of the action?
The move works for O’Donnell, too. She got her start in DC, she has a home there and knows how the town operates. She will be in the gossip flow and positioned to get the gets.
CBS News is taking full advantage of one of its finest hours to introduce O’Donnell — its coverage of the flight of Apollo 11 50 years ago this week.
In the minds of many baby boomers, the core of the evening news audiences, Cronkite was as much a part of that great national adventure as were Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.
Winning the trust of the America public is a big part of what CBS is trying to do with the move to O’Donnell, and there is no better way of doing that that aligning yourself with the most trusted man in America.
For the inaugural broadcast this evening, O’Donnell will have on Amazon CEO and space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy, whose father is credited with winning the space race for America. And tomorrow, O’Donnell will mark the day Apollo 11 blasted off by anchoring from the Kennedy Space Center.
As the final countdown begins, I am skeptical, but you never know.
Maybe Zirinsky and O’Donnell can make as much noise as the Saturn V.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here.