Does Connie Chung Matter?


TIME – Spectator Column – May 31, 1993

Does Connie Chung Matter?

The nation, between Cronkite going and Reagan coming, started abandoning the nightly-news ritual

UNLIKE THAT of the tightly wound anchorman hero of Network, Dan Rather’s public weirdness (the mysterious assaults, his live-TV walkout) preceded the indignities imposed by the network bosses (his closest CBS colleagues purged, his story ideas slighted). But the scenario is still Chayefskian, and now there’s a real-life Network II: in a goose-the-ratings gambit, the bosses oblige the battered, brave protagonist (Rather) to accept a hustling, not exactly cerebral woman (Connie Chung) as his co-anchor.

CBS executives Eric Ober and Howard Stringer suggest, implausibly, that the co-anchorship was Rather’s idea; Rather recalls that Stringer broached the notion. But even Ober, for all his gush about freeing Dan to report from the field, admits the goal is better numbers. In the 12 years since Rather took over for Walter Cronkite, the show’s share of the audience has shriveled by a third. Meanwhile, Tom Brokaw’s piece has shrunk only 10%, and Peter Jennings’ has held steady — heroic achievements in this twilight-of-the-networks age.

With Chung and Rather going on the air together next Tuesday, there is a curiously hasty quality to the rejiggering. Stringer wanted to have the deal done before the CBS affiliates’ meeting this week, and he was apparently in a fret about the competition. He may be worried that Andrew Lack, the smart new NBC News president who came from CBS (where he was Chung’s executive producer), will work some sudden magic at NBC. Then there’s the chance CBS may lose Ed Bradley, who is being offered millions to defect to ABC.

Chung’s greatest virtue is her high Q rating, the annual measure of celebrities’ celebrity and popularity. Her number may be skewed upward, however, by her singular recognizability: she is the only Asian-American TV star. While Chung is a decent newsreader, and CBS staff munchkins like her let’s-order-a-pizza! perkiness, peers and former colleagues tend to be ungenerous. “Call Connie, ask what really interests her,” says a fellow network anchor. “You’ll get a blank screen.” (I did. “I wish I could tell you,” she replied. “What is a Connie Chung story? I’m hard put to describe it. Hmmm . . . I like stories that effect change.”) She is not a reliable on- the-air ad libber, either. “Let’s say Dan’s on a plane when a big story breaks,” says Steve Friedman, the Today show executive producer who worked with Chung at NBC. “Do you put Connie out there for two hours with no script? Pretty dangerous.”

Nearly all the co-anchor schemes since Chet Huntley and David Brinkley broke up in 1970 (an entropy year: Huntley-Brinkley and the Beatles) have been awkward. ABC failed badly with Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters. NBC’s Tom Brokaw-and-Roger Mudd team was just as happy and long-lived. NBC once considered hiring Diane Sawyer as a co-anchor, and discussions of teaming Brokaw with, say, Jane Pauley will now revive. But, says Brokaw, “I’d be bored. There’s not enough for two people to do.” If ABC wants to switch to a co-anchorship, the No. 1-ranked Jennings says firmly, even blithely, “they can, but then I’ll go back and be a reporter.”

Yet most local newscasts are anchored by two people, almost always a man and a woman. One reason is that co-anchorship makes a show seem fast-paced. Then there is the quasi-feminist, yin-and-yang rationale: viewers evidently prefer a male-female balance at the anchor desk. (Indeed, after a decade of watching Chuck-and-Sues and Bree-and-Michaels on local news, the public was prepared to accept Hillary-and-Bill — and to obsess on their haircuts.) “This makes more sense than the teams that have been tried,” says Friedman, who produced NBC Nightly News until February. “Dan’s aloof. Connie’s cuddly.”

According to sources at CBS, the Evening News anchor chair was all but offered to Ed Bradley recently, and he all but refused. That’s an extraordinary benchmark of the decline in stature of the evening news shows. From the season before Cronkite left through the season after, the network- news-watching majority withered abruptly, 77% to 68% in just two years, and not because of CNN, which barely existed. Instead, it was simply the moment the nation, released by Cronkite’s passing and Reagan’s ignorance-is-bliss- ism, started abandoning the nightly-news ritual. Today 1 in 2 Americans over 50 still tunes in one of the network shows. But among adults under 35, barely 1 in 13 watches Brokaw or Jennings or Rather. And Connie Chung is not likely to change that.