Tuesday, March 8, 2005

MH - Perspectives on the Evening News

With Dan Rather's final CBS Evening News broadcast coming up this week, and since Tom Brokaw retired from the NBC Nightly News earlier, you're likely to hear talk about Peter Jennings being the last reminder of the era of "Brokaw, Jennings and Rather." Before we go too far with this line of thought, however, let's consider an item from another of my old TV Guide collection.

This is from the issue of June 12-18, 1965 - the one with Milburn Stone and Amanda Blake of Gunsmoke on the cover. (You do remember Gunsmoke, don't you?) At any rate, this issue contains a review of the past TV season, written by the critic Cleveland Amory. (I'm not even going to ask whether or not you remember him. Trust me, he was quite well known at the time. Perhaps you've heard of this.) Near the end of his article, reviewing the year in news, is this sentance: "[I]t was a season in which no new top newscasters, other than ABC's Peter Jennings, were developed." That's right. Peter Jennings. In fact, although many people don't remember this either, Jennings became anchor of the ABC Evening News in 1965, when he was only 27 years old.

The evening news was different back then. CBS and NBC had expanded from 15 minutes (15 minutes!) to a half-hour only in 1963, and in 1965 ABC's newscast was still 15 minutes (it wouldn't go to a half-hour until January 9, 1967). Jennings' competition back then was Walter Cronkite on CBS, and the top-rated newsteam of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC (Uncle Walter didn't hit the top of the ratings until after Huntley's retirement in 1970).

Now, it should be noted that Jennings didn't anchor the news all that time. In the rotating door that was ABC news in the 60s and 70s, Jennings was replaced in 1968 by Bob Young, who in turn gave way to Frank Reynolds, Howard K. Smith, Harry Reasoner, Barbara Walters, Max Robinson (the first black anchor of the evening news) and Frank Reynolds (again) before finally settling back on Jennings in 1983. (Once that happened, the title of "job with the shortest average tenure in America" became exclusive property of manager of the New York Yankees.)

I want to add that, although I admit to mostly watching ABC's news back when I watched network news, I'm not what you'd call a big fan of Jennings. In many ways, his newscasts have been filled with political bias and elitist distain for the conservative movement. However, in the interests of providing perspective, as well providing another opportunity to go through my old TV Guides, I do think this is worth mentioning. Jennings has been a major player at ABC for 40 years now - Cronkite, for example, was anchor at CBS for just under 20 years. LBJ was president when Jennings first anchored the news, and there have been three popes during that time (Jennings covered the papal elections in 1978 from Rome). Only Queen Elizabeth has been around as long. You can make any number of arguments as to how and why Jennings has survived for so long; nonetheless, facts are facts.

So the next time you hear talk about the age of "Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather," keep in mind that Peter Jennings is, in fact, the last reminder of the era of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite. That should put things in perspective.

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