Scott Pelley's 'CBS Evening News' debut marks return to the old guard. Will it win new viewers?

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Image Credit: John Paul/CBS

Scott Pelley made his debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News Monday night. He may have inherited the desk from Katie Couric, but you could tell from the replica of the Walter Cronkite-era world map that formed Pelley’s backdrop that he would be doing things a bit differently. Critics, by and large, praised his decision not to lead with Rep. Anthony Weiner — in fact, Pelley didn’t even mention the story in his opening tease. Instead, he opened with correspondent’s Mandy Clark embedded report on what the fight is like for U.S. troops trying to stop the enemy from crossing into Afghanistan from their hideouts in Pakistan and updated us on what’s next in the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only after a report on a promising new cancer treatment was it time for Pelley to ask a colleague, “Help us understand why Congressmen Weiner matters.” It was a smart move. He established that his 60 Minutes news judgment made the jump with him and avoided any of the heat that Couric took on her first night — Sept. 5, 2006 — when, during the course of the telecast, she showed a first look at the Vanity Fair cover with the first photo of Suri Cruise.

It’s interesting to read the reviews that greeted Pelley, and realize that if you didn’t know that the star-powered, yet accessible and conversational Couric experiment had failed, and this was a purposeful return to CBS’ traditional delivery, you might not know whether they were positive or negative. Maybe you still don’t know…Take, for instance, The New York Times‘ Alessandra Stanley on Pelley:

“No anchor is likely to recapture Mr. Cronkite’s cachet and unquestioned authority. What Mr. Pelley really offers is a return to a glamour-free newscast; he is earnest and solemn, dependable and not too dashing. On Monday he showed none of Ms. Couric’s pizzazz or Dan Rather’s emotion. In style and temperament, Mr. Pelley is closer to Bob Schieffer and Harry Smith, CBS veterans who have filled in as evening anchor with affable aplomb…. The fact that Mr. Pelley’s first broadcast wasn’t flashy or particularly dramatic at least reminded viewers of one thing they liked about him on 60 Minutes, namely that he is a serious journalist who does big stories without showy gimmicks.”

Or The Washington Post‘s Hank Stuever:

“None of that was any better than when Couric was anchoring mere weeks ago. I don’t know why (or even whether) it brings viewers any more comfort to have the news anchored by a stern-jawed man with graying hair, but Pelley’s initial broadcast reminded me of how reliable and elegant the nightly news can be — and how nice it would be to sit in a recliner at 6:30 every night and just let the news be news. Of course it feels old, yesteryear, outmoded. (Plavix is not for everyone. Ask your doctor.) 
But it felt dependable, too. Weiner was everywhere (deeply regret; deeply deeply; full responsibility — I get the feeling he’s still in a dark room somewhere, repeating it over and over still), but Pelley took the high road. The sound you hear is the sound of Edward R. Murrow remaining, for once, completely still in his grave.”

Or The New York Daily News‘ Richard Huff:

“Scott Pelley went old-school Monday in his first official outing as anchor of the CBS Evening News. He did so by presiding over a smooth newscast that was low on flash and high on bread-and-butter stories about war, cancer cures and, eventually, lying Congressman Anthony Weiner. It was a show built to Pelley’s strength — delivering solid stories, followed by low-key, informative conversations with correspondents about what’s going on in the world…. There were no stunning innovations, nothing viewers hadn’t seen before in terms of presentation, just a straight-ahead delivery of the news in a manner that will clearly appeal to the core viewers ages 25 to 54. That, no doubt, was the point.”

Or The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd:

“Straightforward and dry, Pelley seems like a step back toward fellow Texan Bob Schieffer, who filled the anchor space between the departure of Dan Rather and the coming of Couric and whom Pelley resembles physically, allowing for the 30 years’ difference in age. As a known quantity within the department, and already part of the brand, he seems a safe and a smart choice. (Indeed, he was considered a front-runner for the job before Couric took it.) Pelley does not have to prove himself as a newsman but rather as a big-league personality. It’s rather like moving from Congress to the presidency: The job carries more weight and affords you less cover.”

It’s also interesting to look back on Couric’s early reviews and see how she was viewed as a sign of the times then. As The Los Angeles Times‘ Paul Brownfield wrote after her debut:

“What was perhaps most striking about the broadcast, in its infancy was how it mirrored the identity crisis newspapers are going through, with readership at risk from all the sea changes in news gathering and disseminating. It has produced in the old-guard media a recognition that they’ll have to be more transparent to survive — meet me at my blog! — more adaptable to the way we live now.
Enter Couric, who will take us by the hand, make the evening news more of a mi casa es su casa experience. It’s hypocritical to criticize her for showing the Vanity Fair cover of the first public photo of Suri Cruise, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ daughter; it’s nothing that would be out of context on the front page of any newspaper in America.
But you need Couric to make the transition toward news-o-tainment seamless. She simultaneously populates the big-media hierarchy and conveys that she’s not of it.”

Only time (and ratings) will tell if viewers in 2011 truly want a retreat from “news-o-tainment.” But what’s your gut tell you?

Read more:
Katie Couric to host talk show under Disney-ABC deal

Scotty Pelley will anchor ‘CBS Evening News’
Does it matter who anchors the CBS Evening News?

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  • jfms777

    Granted–it was his first night. But is he always so stiff? He makes George Stephanopoulos almost look animated. Almost.

    • jank

      the man reads the news – unbiased, without passion or prejudice – he should be stiff, all you morons who want to have a “tv personality” watch the cable networks, this goes back to the days when clean cut man read the news, its about time

      • Shel

        Could not agree with you more.

      • Bob R

        right. So sick of anchors trying to be funny.

    • Mtmomma

      Scott Pelley has doe a great job on 60 minutes. He should be less of a “news reader” on the new evening news spot. Relax and talk to us not read to us.

  • boca spin doctor

    good job! refreshing change. will give NBC a run for its money.

  • Peter

    Scott relax you have more than what it takes. Go with the flow as you have done for years
    Get comfortable we will give you some space

  • Carol Boles

    I can not stand Scott Pelley, you lose me as a viewer!!!!! I’m sure one person does not make a difference, but I hope more people feel the way I do

  • Chris

    Brian Williams on NBC is hotter. I’ll stick with him.

  • carolyn williams

    I enjoy Scott’s show. Did not like Katie’s voice…whiny. I wish both good luck.

  • TR

    By keeping (an increasingly weird) Dan Rather on so long, then appointing Katie, CBS has squandered the legacy of Cronkite.

    To regain viewers faith and trust, how about (at least) trying to look impartial?
    Now it doesn’t matter if you are or not, a lot of people think you’re pro-left.
    Like an old journalism teacher once told me, “A news orgainizations has to be like Cesar’s wife…above reproach.”
    I fear that news executives have forgotten that.
    People wil not watch a newscast if they think it’s biased.

    And aside from the idology for ratings cable networks (MSNBC and Fox) CBS has had that mantle for years, ever since Uncle Walter proclaimed Vietnam was lost…and later, Dan’s testy exchanges with Nixon.

    Want ratings…try something new, just present the facts without bias or opinion.
    Who knows, it might work.

  • Eurydice

    I’m a fan of dry, dusty news reporting. I like news anchors who seem as if they’ve thought about the stories they’re reporting rather than just mouthing the words phonetically. I like Scott Pelley and I hope he does well.

    • RogerFederer

      Pelley= dry+ dusty

      • Keith P

        DRY DUSTY and SO very slow
        Just about bored me to sleep

    • Warren Todd

      I thought Scott was “refreshing” because he goes back to the basics and not glamor. The fact that he ignored the “weinergate” was a big plus on his judgment. News should be about important stuff not junk.

  • buddyboy

    Sorry CBS, the old guy’s not for me

  • David Bowles

    “People wil not watch a newscast if they think it’s biased”

    Oh really, then why is Fox News #1 on cable thanks to the conservatives? They WANT it to be biased. Honestly I don’t blame them, they are at home there.

    As for Uncle Walter and Vietnamn, that was a deeply unpopular war and he was right, it was lost by us as by the French before us; Rather and Nixon: someone needed to have the guts to question that lier and cheat. That’s not bias, that is good journalism, and I hope we continue to get it no matter the party or politician which deserves such scrutiny.

  • Sue1

    I have to admit I don’t watch nightly TV news very often (the internet changed my viewing habits), but when I do, I watch NBC. I’m not going to change because of a new old anchor.

  • RogerFederer

    With cable providing so many sources to get updates on world events the major networks have lost their foothold as the automatic go-to for world news. Al Jazeera, France 24, MSNBC, CNN, RT, just to name a few provide hard hitting, in depth news coverage that are very competitive. Perhaps older viewers who grew up watching Cronkite, Rather, and Jennings may continue to favor the major
    networks out of habit but the vast majority of American viewers are not loyal to CBS/ Pelley or any other news outlet .

  • kyhillbilly

    If CBS gives Scott time, he will re-establish its nightly news as the very best available anywhere.

    • Orac

      Agreed. Pelley has what it takes, and a gravitas that has been lacking in CBS’ newscasts for quite some time. If you want people to trust your reporting establish a bright line between what’s going on in the world and your own corporate interests, and then make sure you don’t cross it. In other words, it must be independent. So far so good. I for one will be watching.

  • DJ

    People still watch the news? On television?

  • nina

    Excellent choice. It feels like they have recaptured the great old days of Walter Cronkite…news not entertainment news.

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