Rather and CBS Focus on Future

Nov 29, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Dan Rather may be stepping down from the anchor desk of “CBS Evening News,” but he is not looking back.

His focus is “forward, always forward,” the anchor told TelevisionWeek last week, a day after the announcement he decided to step down on March 9, 2005.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward also is looking to the future.

Last week Mr. Heyward said the Rather move-which will follow by three months this week’s transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams as anchor of top-ranked “NBC Nightly News”-offers “a good opportunity to take a hard look” at the “Evening News” format and to consider presentation changes that might distinguish it from its competitors.

Mr. Heyward predicted an “orderly transition” but declined to comment on speculation that CBS News correspondents John Roberts and Scott Pelley are the prime candidates to succeed Mr. Rather, with the edge given to Mr. Roberts.

Mr. Rather “has done 24 years of good work,” said Bob Lee, the Schurz Communications executive who is chairman of the CBS affiliates advisory board. “His successor will have big shoes to fill.”

Mr. Heyward said that even for “Evening News,” which has shown no signs of being able to break out of third place in a three-way race since the late ’80s, the economics for the broadcast networks’ evening newscasts are “strong.”

Despite the ratings gaps-“NBC Nightly News” averaged 11.4 million viewers the week ending Nov. 19, followed by “ABC World News Tonight” with 10.3 million and “Evening News” with 7.8 million, according to Nielsen Media Research-Mr. Heyward said that the revenues are “all quite close, actually.”

Mr. Rather’s anticipated exit is nearly 11/2 years before his current contract expires at the end of 2006. It also will mark the 24th anniversary of his succession to Walter Cronkite, who is still sentimentally remembered as having been “the most trusted man in America.”

The reaction to Mr. Rather’s announcement that he would turn to full-time reporting for both editions of “60 Minutes” made clear that he is likely to be denied any such cultural group hug. That’s even if Mr. Rather gets off lightly in the report on the independent investigation into his September report on “60 Minutes” about President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service. The brouhaha over allegedly forged memos included in the report renewed criticism that Mr. Rather suffers from a liberal bias that has been displayed in headline-making incidents throughout his career. Confrontations with President Nixon and former President Bush were among Mr. Rather’s more famous episodes.

Still, he says the only coulda, woulda, shoulda meditation he has indulged in was about a pass he didn’t catch in a high school football championship game.

Sources said Mr. Rather began discussions last summer about a possible timetable to pass the “Evening News” baton, but the Memogate scandal rendered any such talks at least temporarily moot. Insiders were not easily convinced that Mr. Rather had recently restarted the transition talks himself, but Mr. Rather insisted last week that about three weeks prior to the announcement that he’s leaving his post, he called CBS Chairman and Viacom co-President Leslie Moonves.

“He saw me immediately” at his Viacom office, Mr. Rather said. “He couldn’t have been more gracious, more cooperative or more collaborative. That conversation was a meaningful, and in many ways decisive, conversation.”

Still to come were conversations with his family, the decision not to try to stretch his record run at the “Evening News” desk and then the decision to break the news last week in an attempt to separate it from whatever judgments are arrived at by the Memogate investigation. The conventional wisdom is that the report, which is being conducted by former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi and two-time Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, is expected by mid-December.

Mr. Heyward, who recused himself from involvement in the report after helping to find the panel members, said he is unable to predict anything about the timing or content of the report.

Mr. Heyward said he chose to not watch any of the TV coverage the night of the Rather announcement and to not read the mountains of clips the day after.

Mr. Rather said he neither offered nor was asked for his opinion on a successor, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. I hope it is somebody from the inside.”

He also said, “It’s not in me to … complain or whine or bitch or moan” about whatever others say about him and his career.

Then, as if to underscore his point about not looking back, he said he was very pleased at the prospect of the Rather family Thanksgiving weekend in New York. “It’s my favorite time,” he said, predicting that it would include “a little college football” and perhaps a trip to the Rather fishing camp in the Catskills, where he likes to take long walks.

Because his artist wife, Jean, is still recovering from knee surgery, he said, “I’ll take short walks.”