CBS quietly readies ‘Evening News’ for next generation

Jeff Glor journeyed all the way to Singapore to get closer to his audience across America.

When the anchor of “CBS Evening News” holds forth from the southeastern Asia metropolis this evening as part of the network’s coverage of a historic summit between Kim Jong-un of North Korea and President Donald Trump of the United States, he will do so with a bit of a twist. All five feeds of the venerable newscast sent across the country will include live updates, so that viewers in Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles can get the latest information on what is transpiring.

“It’s not the norm, but we don’t live in normal times,” says Mosheh Oinounou, who was named executive producer of the newscast in January. “We are in an environment where we need to be relevant to digital viewers and to viewers who have access to 24/7 cable networks. We have to be competitive in that way.”

Glor was appointed to the helm of “CBS Evening News” late last year, a bid by CBS to make a perch known best for anchors such as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Katie Couric and Scott Pelley more meaningful to viewers during a tumultuous age. Viewership for the three broadcast-network evening-news programs has risen and stabilized in recent years, but more young news consumers are getting their headlines from smartphone updates and Twitter posts than ever before, prompting yet another round of hand-wringing over the value of a early-evening rehash of the stories of the day.

And while Glor has eked out some ground – viewership during his tenure on “CBS Evening News” is up 1% compared to the year prior to his launch and up 10% from Pelley’s final month in mid-2017 – the CBS program remains well behind its direct competitors, ABC’s “World News Tonight” and NBC’s “NBC Nightly News.” For the five-day broadcast run ended May 25, according to Nielsen,. CBS lured an average of 1.18 million viewers between 25 and 54, the audience favored most by news advertisers, compared with an average of 1.64 million for ABC and 1.62 million for NBC.

One journalism professor is skeptical CBS can move the needle more significantly. “All network evening newscasts have lost viewers to cable TV and the internet,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “If a star like Katie Couric couldn’t arrest the ratings slide, nobody can – not even Walter Cronkite returned from the grave.”

CBS News’ top executive says he never expected Glor to solve CBS’ third-place problem during his first months at the desk. After all, the dynamic has been in place for more than two decades. “We are actually performing right to the target anticipated,” says CBS News President David Rhodes, in an interview. “Any time, in all our history, whenever we have made a talent change there was usually a setback” in the ratings. “We haven’t really had much of that.”

CBS News has continued to invest in longer-form reporting and overseas coverage as a way to stand apart from its competitors. Rhodes says research shows the average 38-year-old viewer of CBSN, the company’s streaming-video news outlet, craves more depth from news stories – even online. Oinounou says he’s willing to feature fewer stories on “CBS Evening News” if he can find ways to give viewers more perspective and reportage on the ones that do make the cut. And CBS News is proud of getting reporters like Seth Doane into Syria and Ben Tracy into North Korea when rivals choose not to play in those fields.

Viewers “don’t want a kind of rapid-fire succession of bite-sized stories and a big story count. They want to get a little deeper,” says Rhodes. International stories play a role in that effort. In past years, he says, CBS News would have had more competition on some of the overseas stories where it now finds itself alone. “I think it’s concerning that we don’t.”

Changes to the actual broadcast are incremental, not radical. CBS News is quietly revamping the broadcast and the newsgathering that goes into it in a bid to make it more meaningful to the digital generation on the rise – the one that will eventually inherit the broadcast from an older cohort who can still recall when working parents got home in time to make the evening-news an integral part of their daily routine.

“We are trying to get a little better every day,” says Glor, holding forth from his office last week just 24 hours before he was slated to fly to Singapore – and six minutes before hurtling through the hallways at CBS’ New York broadcast facility to do a daily radio report. “We are paying attention to the next generation and all the places we can make our work available beyond the traditional six-thirty slot.”

CBS now replays “CBS Evening News” later in the evening on CBSN. Under Oinounou, who previously supervised several CBSN broadcasts, producers have revived “Eye on America,” an in-depth report that originally ran daily in the early 1990s, as a deeply reported segment that gives viewers an immersive “you are there” report – think about something you might see on “Vice News.” The show recently launched a new introduction that is “much more oriented toward the story of the day told through the voices of the day, as opposed to just reading a set of headlines,” says Oinounou. He compares it to the “Eye Opener” segment that kicks off “CBS This Morning” each A.M.

More is on the way. Oinounou says staffers are working on things ranging from “digital-streaming programs to podcasts to a much more comprehensive social strategy” for the show.

CBS News’ Rhodes says Glor’s let’s-get-to-work attitude – he has worked for CBS News for a decade, tackling everything from major investigations to anchoring CBSN at its launch – is just what the newscast needs. He says he’s bemused by people asking why CBS didn’t hire a “celebrity” anchor for this era. “I can’t figure out why you guys didn’t overpay for someone for whom expectations would be set way too high,” he says, poking fun at questions he’s received from reporters covering the media industry. “Jeff’s hire was really deliberate,” he says, and CBS News put Anthony Mason in place after Pelley’s departure to allow time to suss out a choice. Even CBS CEO Leslie Moonves was involved, Rhodes says. “With the evening news, if you manage that wrong, you make it seem antique,” says Rhodes. “If you manage it right, it seems timeless.”

And so, viewers should expect to see and hear from Glor whenever news strikes, not just in the evening. He belts out lines about the stock market and a new posthumous album coming from Prince during his new radio report. He will serve as an on-the-ground correspondent for “CBS This Morning” from Singapore or from scenes of crisis. And he’s ready to file for any of CBS News’ various linear or digital venues when there’s a need. “CBS Evening News,” he says, “is the main thing. It is not the only thing.”

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