Diane Sawyer's Promotion to Evening News Chair: A Watershed Moment for Media?

CBS spent millions of dollars on a campaign to promote Katie Couric before she took over as the first solo female anchor of a network evening news broadcast. The immediately recognizable face of morning news was going to jazz up the decades-old format and turn journalism as the public knew it upside down. There was much anticipation in the weeks leading up to her first broadcast on September 5, 2006.

I started working at CBS only days before that first show, and the energy in the newsroom was contagious. There were rehearsals and more rehearsals, and even celebrity sightings. James Horner, the famous composer hired to come up with the new theme music for the show, made an appearance in the newsroom. Everyone who cared about journalism had their eye on CBS in those first couple of weeks.

Will Diane Sawyer receive the same level of public attention when she takes over Charlie Gibson’s seat in January? My guess is not by a long shot.

While some cared to see what Katie Couric could do as a news anchor, others chose to focus on her gender. I fielded countless public viewer e-mails in her first few weeks on air where people would write in about what she was wearing. I find it hard to believe that ABC and NBC get e-mails like that. Some viewers couldn’t accept the fact that a former morning-news anchor was now holding the same title that Walter Cronkite once had. They looked for any tiny thing to critique. What about the new innovative elements in the broadcast? There was a Free Speech segment that didn’t last very long—people sounding off on important issues. There was the controversial broadcast where Couric dedicated a majority of the show to interviewing Michael J. Fox. Along with the producers of the evening news, she was pushing the envelope and challenging the viewers.

The only problem is that it didn’t work.

It became clear that people who watch the evening news are engrained in their routines. Once the broadcast returned to a more traditional format, a lot of people seemed happier, even if the ratings didn’t necessarily reflect that. It took Katie a presidential election to truly win over a lot of viewers. Her hard-hitting questions to Sarah Palin were what made many skeptical critics respect her.

Now that ABC has announced that Diane Sawyer will be transitioning into the evening news chair, women will lead two of the three network shows. It is, as Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins has said, “a watershed moment in the presence of women in media.” Would ABC ever have taken a gamble on giving the most coveted seat in broadcast television to a female three years ago? It’s hard to say, but my guess is that they see the landscape is now changing. The ol’ boys club is a thing of the past. Will Sawyer have a difficult time making the transition? Will she be picked apart as much as Couric has been? For example, in April 2007, Alessandra Stanley was analyzing how the three anchors covered the Virginia Tech shootings for the New York Times. She took a cheap shot by implying that Couric’s less-than-glamorous look was calculated: “Ms. Couric, who anchored Monday’s broadcast in white slacks and very little makeup to signal to viewers that she was hard at work in the field (actually, it was a university alumni room)….”

There always will be those who are against change, and people who are close-minded. Diane Sawyer is a tried-and-true veteran of the business, though, and women in her position, like Katie Couric, naturally have a thick skin. It comes with the territory.

People who think that an anchor’s job is solely to sit in front of a teleprompter and read words off of a monitor are mistaken. The evening news format might be very traditional still in a lot of ways, but nowadays anchors are blogging, doing extra stories and broadcasts for the website, and connecting with viewers in ways never possible even ten years ago.

I don’t know many people my age who even watch the evening news broadcasts anymore. Most people get their news from Google Reader subscriptions, going to CNN’s website, or clicking on links on Twitter. If people watch a segment from the news it’s often something they find on YouTube and pass along to friends. News, now more than ever, has become part of social networking. It’s an interactive experience. You can pick and choose what you want to keep updated on.

It may not help ratings that people are this way, but anchors now have an opportunity to come across as more than just the bearer of news. They show sides of their personality. Couric’s warm nature shines through in her YouTube channel, as Matea Gold noted in the L.A. Times. Perhaps Sawyer will do the same, or find her own way to connect so that the younger demographics tune into her show. 

What’s most thought provoking is how these two women will ride out the transformation of television news. It’s true that older audiences want the traditional half-hour news format, but younger viewers are the audiences of the future. Are TV ratings a thing of the past? Perhaps we should be paying more attention to how many YouTube page visits Couric and Sawyer accrue to measure their success. In 2008 when Gold wrote the L.A. Times piece, Couric’s YouTube channel had only 19,000 views so far. It’s increased to more than 162,000 since then. That’s a promising sign.

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