Three weeks into his new job as anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” Bob Schieffer’s folksy, conversational approach to stories has added a new wrinkle to a format that is among the most ritualized in TV news.
Far more than competitors Brian Williams and Peter Jennings, Schieffer engages his correspondents in on-air conversations about their stories.
“In recent years I’ve come to think that the best way to do a newscast is the way reporters talk to each other in the newsroom,” says Schieffer, who became the interim anchor March 10 after Dan Rather stepped down.
Schieffer introduced Barry Petersen’s report about the Indonesian earthquake on Monday’s broadcast by saying, “These poor people. What’s going to happen now? They’ve just been through one and now this one.”
Later, talking with reporter Mark Strassman at the vigil for Terri Schiavo, he said: “This family has been at each other for so long, do you think they’ll come together for the burial service?”
Schieffer’s questions are often only of the “what’s going on?” variety. But, he says, that’s how people talk to one another.
“If you’re writing a story about a five-alarm fire next door, you’d say something like, ‘A roaring five-alarm fire driven by 40 mile-per-hour winds burned its way through a building.’ That’s how it would read in a newspaper,” he says.
“That’s fine. You’re putting all the facts up where people can absorb it. If you walked into the newsroom, the first thing you’d say is, ‘There’s this big fire next door. Have you heard about it?’ “
When Schieffer asked Byron Pitts, stationed in Baghdad, about what it felt like to be there, Pitts responded by saying he prayed before leaving his room each morning and prayed again when he got back safely.
That’s far more memorable than giving the day’s casualty report, Schieffer says.
There are still growing pains, since some correspondents are plainly more comfortable with the off-the-cuff conversations than others.
“I wanted a show that fit what he does best,” executive producer Jim Murphy says of Schieffer, a courtly Texan used to cutting through rhetoric on “Face the Nation” each week.
Interaction among the anchorman and correspondents is much less frequent on other newscasts. It happened on 40 percent of the CBS stories during Schieffer’s first eight days, compared to 9 percent on ABC’s “World News Tonight” and 3 percent on NBC’s “Nightly News,” says Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who analyzes the content of news programs.
It looks like a more comfortable newscast since Rather left, Tyndall says.
“They don’t feel like they’re under fire anymore,” he says. “They’re acting like they’ve been given a fresh chance. When Dan Rather said all the time that ‘I’m not an anchor, I’m a reporter,’ he may have been right.”
There’s no immediate evidence that the changes have paid off in the evening news ratings for CBS, which continues to run a distant third behind NBC and ABC.
The “CBS Evening News” averaged 7.7 million viewers last week, up 1 percent from the same week last year. Ominously, Schieffer’s newscast was down 9 percent compared to last year among the 25-to-54 demographic sought by advertisers, Nielsen Media Research said.
Given that Schieffer, 68, says he’s having “the time of my life” doing the newscast, would he be interested in being more than an interim replacement?
“I really don’t know how long it’s going to last,” he says. “I told them I would do it as long as they feel I can be helpful. I have no reason to believe it’s going to be longer than three months.
“I’ll tell you the truth – if they came to me and said we want you to do it for a while, I don’t know what I would say.”
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