In TV news ratings, the Olympics are the political conventions, and the 1980s will see the first three-network race. After more than a decade of relative stability, the news leadership is suddenly up for grabs, and correspondents with Nielsen appeal will be bid for like baseball free agents. CBS’ dominance has rested on one man, but Walter Cronkite is a wintry 63 and takes almost as much vacation these nights as Johnny Carson. ABC’s fast-paced if unstable new triple-anchor format has caught up with NBC, which responded by raiding away longtime CBS execs Richard Salant and William Small and shifting David Brinkley into commentary. Colleague John Chancellor may return to reporting after the election.
So what are the trends and who will be the anchor stars of the next decade? For answers, PEOPLE turned to Philip L. McHugh, 62, and Peter S. Hoffman, 49, whose 18-year-old Virginia-based firm is the oldest and perhaps most respected in the news consulting field for local stations. “The age of the pretty people is over,” calculate McHugh & Hoffman. Women, now established as local anchors, have “tremendous national potential in the 1980s.” And the day of the solo anchor, with one exception, will soon be finished.
Dan Rather, unfortunately for Roger Mudd, is that one exception, according to M & H. Rather shares Cronkite’s magic, which isn’t “charisma” or “cosmetics,” McHugh & Hoffman say, but “humanism, reality and compassion. With these new ‘Cronkite & Co.’ ads,” say the consultants, “CBS is pushing Cronkite harder than ever, which means to us they are worried about the rise of ABC.” Other long-shot CBS contenders? Ed Bradley: “He has drive, personality, ultimate anchor potential.” Lesley Stahl: “High credibility, no phoniness. But she’s been up and down so often it may be hard for the audience to visualize her as a co-anchor.” Mike Wallace: “He’ll never be credible as an anchor. Audiences like someone to go after the powers that be, but his gut-level approach is the antithesis of what CBS says it stands for.” Harry Reasoned “He’s over the hill, although useful and pleasant.” Morton Dean: “CBS has a whole bunch of Morton Deans—competent, serious, ordinary.” Bob Schieffer: “Ditto.” Charles Kuralt: “Extremely good at what he does—he should never change.”
McHugh & Hoffman say ABC, aggressively led by sports guru Roone Arledge, could overtake CBS even before Cronkite’s phase-out and shortly will “blow NBC out of the tub.” The strongest of ABC’s troika, they say—if NBC doesn’t woo him away—is Peter Jennings. McHugh & Hoffman also believe the network is enhanced by Barbara Walters, “a bulldog with guts and substance.” What about the network’s other heavies? According to the McHugh & Hoffman hip-shooters, Frank Reynolds is “looser and better than ever, but the audience still sees him as stiff and cold.” Max Robinson? “Very valuable. It’s important that network TV not have a color line, and it’s good that a smart reporter like Max got the nod. He’s incredibly egotistical, but the audience doesn’t see that.” Cassie Mackin: “A good reporter, but a hard tootsie. It sounds chauvinistic, but even if she were a man she’d be hard.” Steve Bell: “He started slow and awkward on Good Morning America but has come a long way. He could be moved into Reynolds’ spot anytime.” Lynn Sherr: “Real long-range potential.” Sam Donaldson: “Covers the White House too pompously.”
From 1960 to 1969, NBC’s team of David Brinkley and the late Chet Huntley (a radical departure that established “personality” anchors) bumped CBS out of first place. Now NBC, say McHugh & Hoffman, has “nobody in its stable” to replace the restive Chancellor, whom they write off as “seeming uncompassionate to Middle America.” They also land hard on NBC’s “stereotyped, sterile and bland production style.” The McHugh & Hoffman assessment Of NBC talent? Edwin Newman: “His intellectual word-game approach flies right over the audience’s head.” Eric Burns: “He’s good, has some cynicism but also imagination. Has some strength down the road.” Judy Woodruff: “Has a lot of maturing to do, but she’s a bright reporter with real potential.” Tom Snyder: “Too California and showbizzy. The best place for him is Johnny Carson’s seat.” The salvation for NBC according to McHugh & Hoffman: Hire a top local anchor team and build the Nightly News around them.