An exclamation point at the end of an era for TV news
All of the faces have now changed, and it is safe to say that major network news will never be the same.
Peter Jennings, 67, died Sunday at his Manhattan home of lung cancer, bringing to an end a broadcasting career that spanned a half century (he dropped out of high school to take a job in radio).
Jennings was last seen at the ABC' "World News Tonight" anchor desk April 5, when he closed the broadcast by announcing that he had lung cancer. He was professional, he said he was determined to beat the disease and he predicted in a raspy voice that he would be returning to work, saying, "on good days, my voice will not always be like this." But while he came to the office during the early days of his treatment and continued to critique broadcasts with phone calls and e-mails up until a few days before his death, he never again appeared before the camera.
Within less than a year, the three network anchors have faded away, each in different fashion. NBC's Tom Brokaw, 65, retired last November. CBS's Dan Rather, 73, retired in March, his exit hastened by controversy over a pre-election story broadcast last fall.
Only Brokaw has been permanently replaced, by Brian Williams. Bob Schieffer has been evening news substitute anchor at CBS. Charles Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas have been filling in for Jennings at "World News Tonight."
By any account, Jennings had a remarkable life. His father, Charles Jennings, was the first person to anchor a nightly national news program in Canada and was head of the news division of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Peter Jennings quickly moved from Canadian radio to Canadian Television and was recruited by ABC-TV in 1964, when he was in the United States covering the Democratic national convention. A year later, ABC News made the 26-year-old Jennings its anchor, putting him up against Walter Cronkite at CBS and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at NBC.
ABC's experiment to put youth up against experience ended badly after three years. But Jennings, once a boy who dropped out of school because he couldn't wait to be a newsman, determined that he would educate himself in the ways of the world. He took an assignment in the Middle East, where he earned a reputation for thoroughness that led to his being named the network's chief foreign correspondent and, in 1983, led to his return to the anchor desk.
That same year, Brokaw became sole anchor at NBC. Rather had replaced Cronkite at CBS two years earlier. And so began a period of more than two decades during which the three networks had three experienced reporters going head to head each night, not only reading the news, but functioning as managing editors of their broadcasts.
It is that era that has ended.
Ironically, nearly 40 years ago, ABC turned to Jennings in an effort to go after young viewers, but learned that experience was more important than youth. That was then, this is now.
The news business has changed. Television networks are now parts of huge multinational conglomerates, which has changed the dynamic between anchormen and their bosses. Network broadcasts find themselves facing competition from cable networks, 24-hour news cycles, the Internet and a blurring of the line between news and entertainment.
More than the faces will be changing on network newscasts. In an effort to compete, in an effort to appear relevant, the networks won't be looking for another Jennings (or Brokaw, Rather, Cronkite, Huntley or Brinkley). News anchors of the past cut their teeth covering wars, coups and assassinations. The r & eacute;sum & eacute;s of the next generation of anchors are more likely to be burnished with clips of car chases, celebrity trials and searches for beautiful missing people.