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Why new anchor of 'CBS Evening News' may succeed — or fail

60 Minutes alumnus Scott Pelley’s first day as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News is today.


60 Minutes alumnus Scott Pelley’s first day as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News is today.

With all the talk about Oprah or U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, this is a moment that might have passed unnoticed. CBS Evening News gets a new anchor today: silver-haired 60 Minutes ace Scott Pelley. This means the storied network's TV news division is about to get a new mascot and leader. Every time one of these jobs changes hands, a new debate starts on whether we should care at all. Critics like me note the evening news still has the largest audience of news consumers in television, while others snark that it's a fading, aging crowd, suitable mostly for Cialis ads and MedicAlert bracelets. The truth is, media today is ruled by the broad niche. Any show that can draw a sizable minority of viewers is valued and celebrated, which pretty much describes network TV newscasts to a T. And even though morning news is where the money lies, evening news anchors become the face and heart of a network news operation in singular ways. Former anchor Katie Couric never quite seemed to have her head in the news game the way competitors did; Pelley's ascension offers the opportunity for a helpful reboot. Here are a few thoughts on why Pelley might work, or crash worse than Couric did, when his show debuts at 6:30 tonight on WTSP-Ch. 10.

Why he might succeed

He's an amazing journalist: Pelley is the top anchor on TV's top newsmagazine, credited with delivering some of the show's most-watched and impactful stories, including the recent piece alleging superstar bicyclist Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs. CBS needs to own some stories to make its newscast a destination, and Pelley seems uniquely suited to that task.

He's not a star: CBS News' no-frills attitude always seemed at odds with Couric's superstar ways. Now, the news division has an on-air leader known mostly for his journalism achievements and straight-arrow demeanor. Some stories have said he's particularly attentive to his colleagues, a quality that the perennially third-place newscast seriously could use.

He's from one of the only CBS News shows that wins its time slot: The ultimate TV scorecard is ratings. And 60 Minutes dominates its competition in ways The Early Show and Evening News can only dream of.

He's a traditionalist: Couric's continuing ratings troubles have been traced to problems converting a morning show image for traditional news consumers. Now, CBS' show is topped by a traditional, authoritative male anchor from the most old-school newsmagazine on TV. If he can't draw a traditional news audience to CBS, no one can.

Why he might fail

He has never been a full-time anchor: Amazing as Pelley is as a TV journalist, he hasn't done the job full time at the network before. Experts note the real skill of an anchor is showcasing correspondents, and Pelley's success there is yet to be seen. And say what you will about Couric, she co-anchored the Today show's riveting coverage of the biggest breaking news story in TV history, the Sept. 11 attacks.

He's not a star: 60 Minutes viewers may know Pelley, but he's not a headline-grabbing celebrity the way Couric has been. In fact, CBS talk show host David Letterman made an interesting choice for tonight's show, welcoming outgoing Today show co-host Meredith Vieira on Pelley's first day in the big chair.

He's a lot like the competition: NBC already earns top ratings with a young-ish, charismatic traditionalist anchor in Brian Williams. Evening news viewers seeking an alternative now have one less option.

For your consideration: Deggans' guide for Emmy voters

Admittedly, it's a pipe dream that anything written here will influence anybody with a vote in the Emmy awards.

But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is scheduled to release ballots for the awards today, meaning the group's membership is about to decide on the best and brightest for this year's awards show, hosted by my favorite TV talent, Glee star Jane Lynch.

In case any academy members are lounging poolside at a local resort or hanging out at the Dalí, I offer a few dark-horse suggestions for folks who should not be overlooked this year.

Margo Martindale (Justified): Always the bridesmaid at somebody else's wedding, ace character actor Martindale has made the most of a long string of secretaries, moms and best friends. But her center-stage turn as the villainous backwoods crime boss Mags Bennett turned FX's Justified into a thrilling ride, well deserving of TV's biggest honor.

Wendell Pierce (Treme): For many years, Pierce was a best thing in a lot of awful TV shows, from The Gregory Hines Show to The Steven Weber Show. Now, he's killing it as beleaguered trombonist Antoine Baptiste in Wire creator David Simon's tribute to a recovering New Orleans, HBO's Treme.

Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation): Amy Poehler and Rob Lowe may get all the ink, but Offerman's gruff conservative boss Ron Swanson is the show's secret weapon — a reliable go-to for wacky asides and unexpected plot twists. Best of all, he's got the manliest moustache this side of Tom Selleck.

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Why new anchor of 'CBS Evening News' may succeed — or fail 06/05/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 5, 2011 7:52pm]
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