Anchors Away!

Old or young? Diva or Commentator? A look at the theories about the perfect television news anchor.

The No. 1 pastime in the media right now is gassing off about the great anchor gap. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings have all exited the screen recently, and the culture's having a big talk-therapy session about it.

True, life goes on in the old chair. Brokaw has a permanent successor in Brian Williams, who has the solid, student-council-president bearing of classic 20th-century anchors. Williams is very good, but he's so classic, sometimes you get the feeling you're watching That '80s Show. Rather's seat is being kept warm for a while by kindly plush-bear Bob Schieffer. And Jennings is temporarily away while he fights cancer, and may well return to his job (nice to imagine that, because for my money, he was always the best of the three).

Still, the future of anchorism is suddenly wide open. And everyone has been weighing in with ideas. So many models are floating around, it seems worthwhile to review some of the best, and to throw a few new ones into the mix:

1. The Wise-Old-Man Model. We tend to think of this as the traditional model, but it isn't. The three anchors we've just lost all got the job before they were 50. To reconceive of the job as a late-life gig is a brand-new idea, and not as odd as you might think. People want their anchors to project earned wisdom, and younger people rarely do that. ABC's attempts to turn George Stephanopoulos into a youthful wise man with national pull have been a spectacular flop. Meanwhile, the 68-year-old Schieffer, the de facto guinea pig for this model, has brought a faint crackle of excitement to the CBS Evening News (though not, so far, to the ratings). As the Baby Boomers lope into retirement, oldsterhood will inevitably become cool, in a Madison Avenue, cover-of-Time kind of way. It's already happening. If you watch Amazing Race, CBS's popular reality show, you know that Meredith and Gretchen, the underdog seniors, are thriving against the much younger competition, and they have legions of fans. This may seem a frivolous comparison, until you remember that the network news business lusts desperately after the audience numbers of the reality shows, and will tweak the product as necessary. In fact, why not have really old men—and women—delivering the news? Put a few hearty octogenarians with quivering wattles up there, and the Boomers will feel young for 20 more years. They'll be riveted.

2. The Youth Model. Opposite of Model No. 1, this would enliven network news with the "fresh young voices" we're always hearing about. But as you know if you've ever watched a novice reporter on the tube, TV doesn't come naturally to human beings. It's a learned skill. Turn on a camera, and those fresh young voices go all quavery and stale. There are young TV news people with experience, but most toil in local news, where the standards couldn't be lower. In short, the talent pool is much too shallow.

3. The High-Priced-Diva Model. The New York Times caused an intramural media stir this week when it published a piece by Alessandra Stanley arguing that Katie Couric's "image has grown downright scary: America's girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva down the hall. At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights." The piece implied that people hate divas. But do they, really? Martha Stewart is riding higher than ever. Ditto Hillary. A zillionaire newswoman with a reputation for queenly behavior could inject some new energy into the anchor post. Imagine: Scary Katie clicks her way onto the set, all in leather, and tells America to listen up or else. We just might.

4. The Multiple-Anchor Model. This idea, which has been batted around forever, calls for the broadcast to bounce among different anchors in different cities, throwing out the old New York-centric approach. The great flaw is that this assumes that different cities imbue anchors with different qualities—that an L.A. anchor will give the news an L.A. feeling, and that the mix will yield some kind of cosmopolitan synergy. But it won't. Network-news people are oddly placeless, global beings. They tend to have generic looks and no trace of a regional accent. Anchors blot out geography. Diane Sawyer doesn't change because she's in L.A.; L.A. changes because the Diane Sawyer celebrity cruise liner docks there briefly, with its vast crew of assistants, bookers, and makeup people. Besides, actual viewers barely notice where an anchor is speaking from. Only media people do.

5. The Opinion Model. In a recent New York Times column, 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt argued that what the network newscasts really need is "audacious commentary." Paul Friedman, former executive producer of ABC's World News Tonight, made a similar point this week in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that CBS should add, at the end of its broadcast, an opinion piece that gives viewers "more to think about." It's great idea, but for a reason neither man mentions. It will help rid the newscasts of their greatest handicap—their pretension of objectivity and uber-authority. Nobody buys that canard any more, and rightly so. So acknowledge it, folks, by working some blatant subjectivity into the product. The viewers will like it, and the anti-network bloggers will have even more to scream about. The latter may sound terrible, but would you rather have people screaming about your work, or ignoring it?