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When is Dan Rather's time up?

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Dan Rather's acknowledgment that he erred in broadcasting a recent 60 Minutes report about President Bush's National Guard service has further complicated two of the most delicate questions in television news: When will Rather relinquish the anchor chair of CBS Evening News, and to whom?

CBS has never disclosed a timetable for replacing Rather, who turns 73 next month and who has been the anchor of the nightly news since March 1981. But in the weeks before Sept. 8, when the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes broadcast its report based on documents it now says cannot be authenticated, officials atop the network and its news division had begun discussing a transition plan, the New York Times reported, quoting an unnamed network executive.

The options under consideration include having Rather step down sometime next spring, perhaps near the end of the prime-time season in May, giving his replacement the relatively low-profile summer months to find his or her bearings, the executive told the New York Times. But no date had been fixed.

Although the networks' evening newscasts have seen their ratings and influence whittled away by the rise of 24-hour cable news channels and the availability of news on the Internet, the anchor chair remains one of the most prestigious posts in television journalism. The two most likely successors to Rather, at least as handicapped by the network's rank-and-file correspondents and producers, have long been considered to be John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, and Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes. Neither is considered to have strong name recognition among viewers, and the network has not ruled out looking beyond its news division.

Now, however, whatever transition discussions were under way have been upended. Last week CBS commissioned two outsiders to investigate the journalistic breakdowns that resulted in the broadcast not only of the flawed report but of Rather's early, emphatic assurances that the documents were authentic, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Depending on how damaging the final report is to Rather, it could hasten his departure _ or it could extend his stay at the anchor desk, particularly if the network decides it cannot make a move until the controversy over the guard report has sufficiently cooled.

The decision on Rather's future is expected to rest with two people: Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, and Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and the co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, the network's parent company.

The question of what to do about Rather _ whose broadcast has languished in third place, behind NBC and ABC, for nearly a decade _ began to take on greater urgency in recent months, as NBC has prepared to pass the baton of its nightly newscast from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams.

That generational change, which NBC announced more than two years ago and which represents the first shuffling of network anchor chairs in two decades, will happen in December.

The installation of Williams, 45, a former White House correspondent perhaps best known for anchoring newscasts on NBC's cable networks, is expected to touch off a period of anchor-shopping among viewers.

The audience for all three network newscasts has declined precipitously over the past decade, from an average of 36.3-million viewers between September 1993 and September 1994 to an average of 26.3-million during the same period in 2003 and 2004.

But the broadcasts remain important to their respective networks _ not only as marquee showcases for their news divisions but also as profit centers.

The CBS Evening News has drawn an average of 7.4-million viewers over the past 12 months, according to Nielsen Media Research. That is significantly more than even the highest-rated cable channel, Fox News, but less than top-rated NBC's 9.8-million viewers.

All three network newscasts are estimated to bring in $100-million or more in annual advertising revenue.

At CBS's affiliate stations, as well as at those of NBC and ABC, the nightly newscasts serve as a gateway to evening programming. Bob Lee, chairman of an association of CBS affiliates and president and general manager of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., said the network's reluctance to broach the transition issue had caused friction with some station owners.

"It's such a sensitive matter, and it just isn't discussed with the affiliates," he said. "We are in the dark."

(The New York Times Co. owns four CBS affiliates.)

At 72, Rather is eight years older than his predecessor, Walter Cronkite, when he stepped down, and eight years older than Brokaw is now. Roberts and Pelley, by contrast, are both 47.

But for all of the negative attention that Rather draws as a lightning rod for conservative ire _ especially evident in the last few weeks, as he backpedaled on a story damaging to a sitting Republican president _ his most likely successors remain relatively unknown.

Roberts, who was born in Toronto, first worked as a radio news reporter in Ontario before moving to a local Toronto television station as an anchor and correspondent. In the mid 1980s, he signed on as one of the original hosts of a video music channel, MuchMusic. He later served as a co-anchor of Canada A.M. on CTV, before joining CBS News in 1992 as anchor of the CBS Morning News. He has been the anchor of the Sunday edition of the evening news since March 1995 and chief White House correspondent since August 1999.

Pelley began his journalism career at 15, as a copy boy at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in Texas. After 11 years as a reporter and producer at television stations in Lubbock and Dallas, he joined CBS in 1989 as a correspondent and was largely based in Dallas. Like Roberts, he served as CBS' chief White House correspondent, before being named a correspondent for 60 Minutes II, as it was then known, in June 1999.

Under the terms of Rather's most recent contract, which expires at the end of 2006, he serves as anchor of the evening news at the network's pleasure. Heyward said in an interview last year that whether as anchor or not, Rather was "going to be at CBS News for many years to come," most likely in some capacity at 60 Minutes.

In an interview last fall, Rather said that he intended to serve as anchor only as long as Heyward believed he should _ but that he still considered himself amply qualified for a job that he obviously loves.

"Recognizing I can't be totally objective about it, I say to myself, "I think I can do the job as good as anybody and maybe better than most,' " he said.