Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite?

cronkiteThe obvious answer to the question above is “to rest”, since Walter Cronkite passed away last year at the age of 92. What I really meant by the question is, what happened to the era when the evening news anchor was one of the most important, powerful, and respected people in the world?

When I was a teenager Walter Cronkite was a news god, and one whose influence on our nation was universal. Unlike today’s news journalists, he maintained objectivity in reporting the news. Cronkite was the definition of Fair and Balanced, unlike the crap Fox News serves up (to be fair CNN and MSNBC have equal biases as well in the other direction). When Cronkite editorialized, which was rare, and questioned the war in Vietnam, it was the beginning of the end of the Johnson Administration. “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America”, said President Johnson in 1968 a few weeks before he withdrew from the 1968 Presidential race.

When Cronkite stepped down as the anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1981 there were 50 Million Americans who watched one of the three half-hour evening news broadcasts. Today, although the U.S. population has grown by roughly 35% during the last 30 years to more than 300 Million, broadcast network news viewing has declined by more than 50%, to 22 Million average viewers in 2009. We know all the reasons for this—CNN/Fox/MSNBC and an avalanche of other digital and traditional options make the twenty-two minutes of actual news delivered between 6:30 and 7:00 pm hardly the place where the nation turns first.

In view of this, it’s incredible that the broadcast networks still pay their anchors like they were rock stars. The biggest (e.g. most expensive) “star”, who is in the final stages of crashing to earth, is Katie Couric who reportedly earns $15 Million annually. That’ll change next year when her contract is up. Her chances of earning that salary again are equal to the Sixers re-upping Allen Iverson for $15 Million next year. In terms of ratings, CBS Evening News at 6.7-7 Million viewers has roughly 1/3 less viewers than ratings leader NBC with approximately 10 Million viewers. However, at a $15 Million annual salary, Couric reportedly earns roughly 50% more than NBC’s Brian Williams. Bad ROI for KC at a time where the news divisions at all networks are slashing personnel and costs.

The deeper reality is the world has changed, and the delivery of news is just one of those thousands of changes. I do not yearn for the days when Walter Cronkite was the “most respected man in America”. Those days are long gone in any case. When that was true, I knew a lot less about what was happening in the world, and knew it a lot slower. We are now living in an era  of “diminished expectations”, where the news divisions of the networks are being slashed, so it’s time to compensate TV talent (both network and local anchors) commensurate with their diminished audience delivery, and not like media gods they once were considered.

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