America - Andrew Stephen finds US networks in decline

A decade ago, a national news anchorman was a demigod. Today, Americans get their news from more dif

I still remember what happened on one of my first visits to Portland, Oregon. I always follow the same pattern when I visit towns and cities far afield from my base in Washington: I read the local newspaper first, and then switch on the local television news. You never know what you will find. On that visit, I discovered the entire city to be awash in hysteria over the departure of an apparently celebrated local television news anchorman. The night's news was devoted to the man, his life, his great moments on air, and just how much life would not be the same without him. There were emotional reminiscences about him, on-air reunions - all leading to his last words, somehow gasped out from behind all the shaking and tears.

That cannot have happened more than a couple of decades ago, but with hindsight, that absurd day now symbolises for me how an important phase in the life of this country was already coming to a close. I thought of all this in the final days of November, when the nation was supposed to be similarly transfixed over the imminent departure of two of its three network anchormen, Dan Rather of CBS and Tom Brokaw of NBC. Rather had managed to get out the momentous news of his departure - "after nearly a quarter of a century as the anchor of this broadcast, I have decided it is time to move on" - while Brokaw bathed in continuous tides of self-congratulatory celebration that mercifully ended with his final broadcast on the evening of 1 December.

There was a time when America gravitated to one of the three television networks, transmitted by any one of hundreds of local stations like that in Portland, for its news and cultural enrichment. The nation would huddle around its television sets, to be united as one by three mighty colossuses, which all emanated from the same small patch of Manhattan. As recently as 1969, 85 per cent of the nation's television sets would be switched on every evening for the news broadcasts of the Big Three; even just a decade ago, 41 million viewers turned to the three networks for their news. But now the old figure has declined to 21 per cent.

Predictably, the three networks have not yet woken up to this phenomenon and still like to live in that haze of self-importance that the Portland anchorman (locally) and Rather and Brokaw (nationally) exemplified. To the previous generation, the three best-known anchors - Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite - were demigods. The continuity was such that Rather, now 73, first reported for CBS when John F Kennedy was president; he succeeded Cronkite shortly after Ronald Reagan began his first term in the White House. Sixty-four-year-old Brokaw, like Rather, reported from Vietnam.

But Brokaw was replaced on NBC the following night by an insipid, pretty-boy anchorman named Brian Williams, who has none of the heavyweight star appeal that Brokaw, Rather and Peter Jennings (a sprightly 66-year-old on ABC who will soon be the only survivor of the troika) had when they took over their anchor chairs. The nation is meanwhile supposed to be seething with speculation over who will succeed Rather when he makes what will undoubtedly be his historic, emotional, etc farewell in March; but it isn't, except in the minds of a few media reporters. It hardly matters who will form the new generation of network news anchormen, for they simply no longer have the role of purring national unifiers that their predecessors had.

The reason is simple: the sources of news, as well as culture, have become far more diffuse. Increasingly, the nation is getting its news from cable channels: on the night of 2 November and the presidential election - an occasion when Americans usually gravitate to the networks - NBC's Brokaw had just 15.7 million viewers, ABC's Jennings 13.7 million, and CBS's Dan Rather 10.1 million. The three cable news channels - Fox, CNN and MSNBC - had 17.1 million viewers between them, more than any single network. Even the Comedy Central channel's Jon Stewart had 2.1 million people watching that night: most of those now watching on cable are in relatively youthful demographic groups, while the median age of those watching network news is roughly 60.

I examined the ratings a few days ago for two of the Sunday morning/lunchtime news and current affairs shows: I compared the audiences attracted by Chris Wallace on Fox and by George Stephanopoulos on ABC. Wallace is an interestingly symbolic figure because he is a reborn cable anchorman, having had previously successful careers on the ABC and NBC networks; his father, Mike, was a network colossus who joined CBS in 1951 and who still (at 86) just about manages to keep going with reduced audiences there. Stephanopoulos, a youthful architect of Bill Clinton's triumphs, illustrates the older Sunday network role previously held by the late David Brinkley of NBC.

The outcome was fascinating. I discovered that Fox's Wallace beat ABC's Stephanopoulos with a 2.1 rating and a 6.0 share, compared with a 1.7 rating and a 5.0 share. Translated from television marketing gobbledegook, a rating point represents 1,022,000 households, while the share is the percentage of households watching. Thus 95 per cent of people watching television at the time were tuned to something other than ABC's once-mighty Sunday flagship news programme - and more people were watching cable's Fox rather than the offering on traditional, terrestrial television.

Indeed, the shamelessly right-wing trailblazers of the Fox News

Network now easily lead their more conventionally impartial opponents on CNN and MSNBC - who, between them, barely muster the same viewing figures as Fox. Staggeringly, as many as 25 per cent of Americans have been tuning in to Fox for their news during 2004, up 17 per cent on the corresponding figures for four years ago. Probably largely as a result of this right-wing input, fully half of all Americans believe that the US media were biased in favour of John Kerry this year; only 22 per cent thought there was a bias towards George W Bush.

Rarely though I watch television news (or any television, for that matter), I confess that I will miss the likes of Brokaw and his world weary, homespun Midwestern wisdom, as well as Rather's ridiculously contrived Texan cowboy patter. "This election is hotter than a Times Square Rolex," Rather told viewers on election night.

Yes, the likes of Rather were certainly entertaining. In their earlier days, they still had the ability to set mores with such pronouncements on election night - powers that Williams, and whoever succeeds Rather on CBS, simply will not have in the newly evolving America.

I suspect that the cultural implications of all this for the nation are astonishing. The three networks represented simplicity and unity, and so, in passing, they have given way to diffuseness and disunity. Life is more complicated, less predictable. To make it all even more confusing, I'm told that young Americans in the 18-34 age bracket are now far more likely to log on to the internet (46 per cent) than to watch television (35 per cent).

How that Portland anchorman must be turning in his grave.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.