When he signs off the air tonight, Ted Koppel will be closing a chapter in American TV journalism. Koppel has been an ABC television news reporter for 42 years, hosting the long-running Nightline for 25. He is the last of a generation of television anchors who delivered news in a time before cable channels had eroded the dominance of the Big Three networks, first to the baby boomer generation, then to their Generation Y grandchildren.
Koppel's departure from the airwaves tonight follows those of three other respected and well-known anchors: NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, who signed off in December 2004; CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who called it quits in early 2005; and ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings, who succumbed to lung cancer in August. Of lesser impact, if only for his brief tenure, is the departure of CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who had provided a calming voice for Americans in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Brown was bumped from his post on that cable network earlier this month.
The replacements for these anchors are all competent, experienced newscasters. NBC's Brian Williams was long groomed as the successor to Brokaw, having served as fill-in anchor on Nightly News and as the network's chief correspondent at the White House. Jennings' replacement, Charles Gibson, is the well-liked cohost of ABC's Good Morning America, and Bob Schieffer hosted the CBS news show Face the Nation for 14 years before replacing Dan Rather. Brown's replacement at CNN, Anderson Cooper, is the fast-rising young reporter who gained notoriety when he angrily attacked Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, about the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina (although CNN may be regretting their move--Cooper's ratings for Brown's old time slot are down 27 percent).
Now some question the future of television news, fearing that this old guard of respected news anchors was the last line of defense against the proliferation of shoddy tabloid journalism. These anchors had clout in a time before their news divisions became another line item in a parent company's P&L; statement. In an era of shrinking audiences and increased competition from cable news sources and the Web, news divisions have been forced to go to great lengths to attract viewers, perpetuating and mutating the always-popular "if it bleeds, it leads" attitude to include any number of visually arresting yet dubiously newsworthy topics.
In his August 8 column, USA Today media watchdog Peter Johnson voiced the concerns of many when he wrote of the loss of Jennings, Brokaw, and Rather. "[They] had enough influence...to push for serious, in-depth stories and coverage of world events that mattered to [them] and that [they] felt viewers needed to know about... That's something viewers might never see again."
CBS News president Andrew Heyward said the Big Three anchors "used their extraordinary power to fight for serious and important stories, and in a business that has tended toward the trivial or tabloid, there's a risk that if the next generation of anchors doesn't have the clout, it'll be up to a combination of them and their producers to lobby corporate higher-ups for reporting of serious journalism."
What do you think about the future of "serious journalism" on TV? Is it still a possibility? Tell us what you think! And remember, at least we still have Geraldo!