With ratings and paychecks shrinking, there's a mass defection brewing from broadcast news
News anchors don’t seem to want the job anymore.
Among the latest looking to abandon the chair: Katie Couric on CBS; Meredith Vieira on NBC’s top-rated “Today,” and apparently her co-anchor Matt Lauer is ready to jump ship, too.
They join Anderson Cooper, who’s made a deal for a syndicated talk show outside of CNN; Keith Olbermann, who bolted from MSNBC last winter; and Glenn Beck who split from Fox on Wednesday.
Also read: What's Next for Glenn Beck and Fox News?
What’s going on? Seems like it’s just not as much fun anymore to get up at 3 am to keep America informed — even if the prize is a salary as much as $15 million a year.
The decline of network audiences, the migration of the news agenda to the internet and the desire for star anchors to build their own brands — instead of building cable or broadcast brands — are all to blame.
“The prestige has diminished, the money has diminished and the audience has diminished,” Mark Feldstein, a professor of broadcast journalism at George Washington University, told TheWrap.
The evening news perch on television used to be the most sought-after position in journalism, offering a trifecta of money, fame and influence.
Once upon a time, when you took the anchor chair, you stayed put. As David Letterman recently joked with Couric, “Once you take the anchor chair, that’s what you do.”
He went on to note that Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite retired from television altogether when they gave up the anchor slot.
But today Couric and company’s departures are seen by many as lateral moves. With the media landscape increasingly fractured and audiences getting more of their information from the internet, the power and influence of broadcast news has never been weaker.
“A network news and cable anchor is no longer the voice of God. It has some cachet, but it’s not the end of the world if they walk away,” a senior cable news executive told TheWrap. “The industry has changed and they can wrap themselves in their personality and parlay that into something else. They don’t need the network.”
In a hyper-adrenalized news cycle, the reality is that a shrinking number of viewers still get their news from the evening news — that's a fact that’s reflected in the ratings.
In the first quarter of this year, only ABC experienced a mild bump in viewership. NBC’s ratings fell to an average of 2.9 million viewers age 25-54, and CBS suffered its lowest-rated first quarter since at least 1992, averaging 1.98 million 25-54-year-old viewers.
“The news does not wait until 6:30. The only people who are still waiting for it are older, which is why you have all the pharma and adult diaper ads. That won’t last forever,” Feldstein told TheWrap.
Not that the post isn’t well-paid: Couric makes $15 million, Beck earns $2 million and Olbermann banked $7 million a year.
However, that may pale in comparison to what they can potentially make freed from network shackles. Case in point, Beck’s news salary was a small fraction of the $32 million he made from books and radio.
And Oprah didn't become Oprah from behind a news desk.
“People are seeing that there’s an opportunity where the brand is changing from programs to individuals, and there’s a portability there,” said one insider in Couric's camp.
Of course, beyond a creeping suspicion that the network yoke is holding them back, the reasons for the high-profile hosts’ departures are varied.
“Katie always dreamed of the anchor chair. It was something which held so much esteem, and even though the numbers were already declining, and CBS was already in last place — to her, there is still something special about being in that chair. She doesn’t regret it one bit,” the advisor to the news talent told TheWrap.
Despite that, the host felt confined by the 22-minute time slot and believed a syndicated show would better play to her strengths.
In the case of Beck and Olbermann, both lighting-rod hosts clashed with their corporate bosses. They took with them passionate followings, more devoted to ideology than a particular network.
In Vieira’s case, her husband’s health struggles made the timing right, while Lauer is believed to want more personal time, according to a television news producer. The fact that his best friend Bryant Gumbel – who has a highly-regarded sports news show on HBO — gets to golf regularly has not escaped him.
And anyway — “Who’s he got left to interview?” the producer asked.
And even if there are amazing interviews left, how much longer will people be watching?