The Kennedy assassination. The moon landing. The Nixon resignation.
Walter Cronkite had a few lifetimes’ worth of signature, career-defining, on-air moments during his 20-year career as host of the CBS Evening News. But what about the network anchors who came after Cronkite?
To be fair, Cronkite didn’t have competition from cable news or the Internet to deal with. His coverage of the moon landing, for instance, garnered a 45 percent share of the 125 million viewers who tuned in to watch—imagine how fragmented those shares would if the moon landing happened now.
I asked a few TV experts if the comparison between Cronkite-era news and now is a fair one. "What is so strikingly different today is that the news consumer is in the driver’s seat,” Chris Ariens, editor of TVNewser.com wrote in an e-mail. “There’s no more waiting until 6:30 to get your news and the idea of just one trusted source of information does not exist.”
Still, big events can produce signature moments for the big three networks’ current anchors. But they are increasingly rare. Here’s a host-by-host rundown:
Anchor, CBS Evening News, 2007-
Signature on-air moment: Palin interviews
During her three years at CBS, Katie Couric’s interview series with Sarah Palin has been, by far, Couric’s defining moment at the network. (It even has it’s own Wikipedia entry.) Unlike her newscasts, the interviews drew rave reviews for Couric and scathing ones for Palin. Couric even won a Walter Cronkite award from USC for the Palin interviews, which judges called a “defining moment in the 2008 presidential campaign.”
Anchor, NBC Nightly News, 2004-
Signature on-air moment: Hurricane Katrina
To a younger audience that favors the web and Jon Stewart over network newscasts, Brian Williams is probably better known for his appearances on the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (in 2006 Williams became the first network anchor to host SNL) than as host of NBC News. Yet his coverage of Hurricane Katrina on the ground in New Orleans was on par with Anderson Cooper’s, pitch-perfect and Cronkite-esque.
Anchor, ABC World News, 2006-
Signature on-air moment(s): Palin interview
Like Couric, Charles Gibson is—and probably will always be—more known for his tenure as a national morning show host than his post-Good Morning America career as 6:30 news anchor. Also like Couric, Gibson’s September 11, 2008 interview with Palin—the first after she became a vice presidential candidate—is his defining on-air moment since taking the reins from the late Peter Jennings.