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


(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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