The headlines announcing Norah O’Donnell taking the esteemed Cronkite Chair of Lefty Jabbering behind the anchor desk of the “CBS Evening News” were so full of hope.
Hollywood Reporter made O’Donnell appear all daring, saying she was “taking on the mission” for the “brand-defining” news program. Marisa Guthrie’s report even managed to name-drop Walter Cronkite in the very first sentence.
But that’s nothing compared to the Los Angeles Times‘s effort. They stuck old Walt right in the headline: “Norah O’Donnell tries to restore the house that Cronkite built at CBS News.” The Times was so pleased with this story, apparently, that the usual “pay us money if you want to read this content” nag/blocker didn’t pop up, and I was able to read the story free of charge. They also name-dropped the late, great Tim Russert in the lede, hoping to remind viewers that it’s only been eleven years since the Tiffany Network’s news division had an anchor who didn’t suck.
Going back even further, Variety squeezed Edward R. Murrow’s sacred name into their O’Donnell headline: “Norah O’Donnell Invokes Edward R. Murrow to Launch New Era at ‘CBS Evening News’.”
It’s a new era! But also just like Murrow! Please watch!
The lead-up all felt a bit desperate.
Just like any network does when any long-running program gets a new host, CBS promo’d the heck out of O’Donnell’s impending takeover from Jeff Glor. That kind of media carpet-bombing almost always juices ratings, even if sometimes only temporarily. O’Donnell herself primed the publicity pump, calling out “Trump’s racist tweets” on Monday night.
The timing couldn’t have been better, either, coinciding with Apollo 11 nostalgia and Cronkite’s steady coverage of it. And by “coincidence,” I mean, “You can bet CBS planned it that way.”
But nothing seemed to work.
Over at Forbes, Mark Joyella reports that ratings for the “Evening News” actually slipped the night of O’Donnell’s debut. While O’Donnell’s premiere was generally well-reviewed by people who were going to give O’Donnell nice reviews, the numbers told a different story:
Monday night’s broadcast was down compared to the same night a year ago — and the average audience for the CBS Evening News so far in 2019. O’Donnell drew a total audience of 5.61 million viewers, down 1% from the same night in 2018 (5.69 million viewers) and down 6% compared to the 2019 year-to-date average of 5.96 million.
Perhaps more concerning for CBS were the ratings among viewers 25-54, the demographic most valued by advertisers, and an audience critical for lifting the CBS Evening News out of the ratings basement. O’Donnell delivered 929,000 viewers in the demo Monday, compared to 1.22 million a year ago when the newscast was anchored by Glor—a decline of 24%. The newscast was down 22% in the demo compared to the year-to-date average.
You can’t pin all the blame on O’Donnell, since CBS’s news division has been an underperformer for a long time. Nevertheless, it’s telling that the well-known newsreader couldn’t generate even a one-night buzz, given all that positive press and one seriously hot-button issue (Trump’s tweets) for a headline story.
Cronkite anchored the “Evening News” for almost 20 years. Dan Rather lasted even longer, finally done in by his ego and Bush Derangement Syndrome. Bob Schieffer was brought in as a temp, quickly replaced by Katie Couric and her five-year run. Scott Pelley was brought in to fix Couric’s lousy ratings, but lasted only slightly longer. Anthony Mason served as another temp in 2017, to be replaced full-time by Jeff Glor — who barely lasted 18 months, reportedly as much a victim of O’Donnell’s ambition as of his own meager ratings.
What’s next, an anchor-of-the-month club?
The ever-shortening turnover at CBS’s anchor desk is the sign of an increasingly desperate news division. Maybe with O’Donnell, CBS has at long last found the right person for the job, someone who can turn the ratings around over the long haul. But her debut was hardly auspicious.