How Scott Pelley Saved ‘CBS Evening News’

ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Brian Williams-less newscasts are presently battling for first, but CBS is gaining on its rivals with a 21 percent jump in ratings over the past four years

For years, CBS executives racked their brains trying to revive the network’s flailing “Evening News” broadcast. But no matter how much money they threw at the problem, or who they hired to fix it, their flagship news show remained stuck in third place year after year.

But these days, CBS brass may finally have a reason to smile. On Wednesday, the network announced “Evening News with Scott Pelley” added more than 1.25 million viewers over the past four years – a whopping 21 percent jump. The show also saw audience growth for the fifth consecutive season, the first time any network evening news broadcast has done that since 1987.

“We finally have reached a point at the ‘Evening News’ where we’re really hitting on all 12 cylinders,” Pelley told TheWrap. “The broadcast is something we’re all very proud of.”

During Pelley’s tenure, CBS has quietly yet aggressively managed to tighten the decades-long gap with its competitors.

While CBS is still lagging far behind NBC’s “Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News Tonight,” the distance no longer seems insurmountable.

In the last four years, “Evening News” went from 5.99 million to 7.23 million viewers. During that same time, NBC’s “Nightly” dropped from 9.12 to 8.99 million viewers, while ABC’s “World News” gained about half a million people, going from 8.05 to 8.59 million.

thepelleyeffect2While many would still consider it a two-horse race between ABC and NBC, experts say CBS is quickly catching up.

“They’ve made some really smart decisions,” Horizon Media senior VP of research Brad Adgate told TheWrap. “They’re finally becoming a viable show.”

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, “Evening News” was the envy of broadcast journalism. The show enjoyed an 18-year dominance among network nightly news programs, beginning with legendary newsman Walter Cronkite.

When Dan Rather assumed the position in 1981, ratings began to drop. By 1992, the program had fallen to third place, though it was still drawing a respectable 7 million viewers a night.

After Rather became embroiled in a controversy over a disputed news report involving President George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service, “Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer took over as interim anchor, as the network tried to find a permanent replacement.

In 2006, CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves offered “Today” show anchor Katie Couric the opportunity to make history as the first solo female anchor of the “big three” weekday evening news broadcasts.

CBS was so desperate to reboot its struggling franchise it offered Couric a five-year contract at $15 million a year, making her the highest-paid journalist in the world, a salary similar to Barbara Walters’ at ABC.

But Couric’s much-hyped move quickly fell flat. During her five years at CBS, “Evening News” remained a distant third.

When Pelley took over in 2011, it seemed like an odd choice. A respected “60 Minutes” correspondent, Pelley had never anchored a show before. Some in the industry believed he lacked the charisma that many have come to expect from a network news anchor.

“When we first started, it was a great experiment,” Pelley said. “Nobody knew whether viewers would want to watch me read the news.”

But Pelley, it seemed, was exactly what the CBS doctor ordered.

His no-nonsense, no-frills style seemed to click with CBS viewers and the numbers began to climb. While both NBC and ABC experienced a slight decline, CBS was, for the first time in a long time, growing its audience.

By Season 2011-2012, Pelley added 236,000 viewers. The next year showed an increase of another half a million people. By the 2013-2014 Season, Pelley had managed to add a cool million viewers to his nightly broadcast.

The changes

The first thing Pelley did was turn off all the giant TV monitors hanging from the studio ceiling.

Like most modern-day newsrooms, CBS’ had several built-in screens showing what competitors were doing at any given time.

“The point that I was making to everyone and myself was that we really don’t care what the others were doing,” Pelley said. “The standard that we have to meet here at CBS is a damn high bar to cross and it’s going to take every bit of creativity and talent and energy that we have to clear our own bar.”

Pelley also broke some of TV’s cardinal rules, doubling down on investigative journalism and long-format pieces.

“We had two nights in a row a couple of months ago where we featured investigative reports that were more than four minutes in length,” executive producer Steve Capus told TheWrap. “As you know, that’s not normal for a half hour evening newscast.”

Taking a page out of the “60 Minutes” playbook, Pelley moved further into the newsroom, at times even sitting on a stool.

“We reinforced that connection between ‘Evening News’ and ’60 Minutes’” Capus said. “The audience has responded well to that.”

The Brian Williams scandal

The fallout from Brian Williams embellishing his helicopter journey in Iraq in February not only damaged the credibility of NBC News, it also may have opened the door for CBS and Pelley.

Authenticity and credibility became a hot topic in TV news.

Unlike his competitors, Pelley has shied away from the late-night talk show circuit, refusing invitations to appear on programs like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

Stephen Colbert is a friend of mine and he wanted me to do the show again and again and again,” said Pelley. “But I didn’t do his show because at that time he was portraying a fictitious character and I didn’t think it was appropriate for a reporter to take part in that hilarious fantasy.”

Neither Pelley nor Capus would comment on the Brian Williams debacle, instead insisting they’re focused on their own show. But some experts say the fallout from Williams’ suspension could end up helping Pelley.

“You need a big disruption in order to change people’s viewing habits,” said Adgate. “The Brian Williams scandal provided a big disruption.”

While Pelley has managed to bring up the show’s overall numbers, when it comes to the advertiser-coveted 25-54 news demographic, the numbers have remained pretty much the same. On his first week as the anchor of “Evening News” Pelley scored a 1.3 rating in the key demo — 0.4 less than Couric during that same time period. Last week, almost four years to the day, the show posted a 1.4.

Whether or not Pelley manages to break the network’s third-place curse remains to be seen. But if the last four years are any indication, that prospect is not entirely impossible.

“It is glacially slow, at least by my standards. I would have really liked all of this to have resulted in a No. 1 evening news broadcast by now, but what I do know is this: what we’re doing is working.”