Norah O'Donnell becomes anchor of the "CBS Evening News" on Monday — the seventh "permanent" one since 1948, and the second solo female anchor here since 2011, when Katie Couric left. This is a historic moment for a historic broadcast, potentially a turning point, too. Let's go to the questions:
Who exactly is Norah O'Donnell?
The 45-year-old Washington, D.C., native and mother of three spent the first half of her career in the NBC News Washington bureau, where she rose to become White House correspondent and MSNBC chief White House correspondent — the role she assumed in 2011, when she jumped to CBS, where she became an "Evenng News" fill-in anchor and (most notably) one of the key figures involved in the "CBS This Morning" turnaround.
What is O'Donnell going to do that those other seven (going back to Douglas Edwards) didn't?
Well, anchors anchor and she, too, will anchor. But where she anchors from is the difference here. For the first time, "Evening News" will originate from Washington, and a refurbished bureau on M Street. The nighttime news shows have always originated from New York because New York is the most important city in the world and Washington (we can all agree) is considerably less so.
Before we move on to the logic of that D.C. move, why not Gayle King as the new "EN" anchor?
That other "CBS This Morning" figure has considerably more anchor experience (albeit on a local level) and recently had the only "moment" a major TV anchor has had in years when she faced down a hyperventilating R. Kelly. As an African-American female, she would have been a paradigm buster, too. But "CBS This Morning" is the more important franchise — at least financially — and it's now up to King to resuscitate its fortunes, which have flagged considerably since Charlie Rose's firing in 2017.
So why the move to Washington?
For a little historic perspective, "Evening News With Walter Cronkite" and "The Huntley-Brinkley Report" tended to trade first place in the ratings during election years — which at least is an indication that viewers also tend to shop a little more during these tumultuous moments. But this is about the here-and-now, and in Washington, a certain controversial president has been good for viewership of all the networks. "Evening News" certainly wouldn't mind a little more of that, but a truly momentous election cycle looms. Washington will be the big story, and "Evening News" will be on the doorstep. Moreover, this offers the broadcast something a little different, and maybe a lot different, from the others, which have de-emphasized D.C. news.
Any risk here?
None. O'Donnell begins her tenure this week with interviews of Jeff Bezos and Caroline Kennedy, hardly D.C.-centric figures, while the broadcast, like the others, will spend all week celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The show can and will leave the Beltway whenever it pleases, or go where news dictates.
Why is the O'Donnell "Evening News" so vitally important to the future of CBS News?
Simply because "Evening News" hasn't been in first place since the 1980s — and notably deep in third during an era when the nightly viewing habit has stabilized, and in some years grown a little. For the second quarter, ending late June, ABC "World News Tonight" averaged 8.2 million viewers, "NBC Nightly News" 7.4 million and "EN" 5.5 million. For "EN," that's not simple a deep hole, but a black hole. Blame the last anchor — nice, pleasant, competent and terribly miscast Jeff Glor — or blame the other broadcasts, particularly ABC, which tend to be much fluffier and more "viewer-friendly." Nevertheless, "Evening News" is not even a factor. O'Donnell has to reverse this — certainly not "stabilize" this, as there's nothing to stabilize — and do it with a serious, intelligent, anti-fluff broadcast.
Well, fine. Can she?
I'll leave this answer to a veteran producer, who understands the culture and the stakes. Tom Bettag, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland, and formerly ran particularly successful editions of "Evening News" and "Nightline," says CBS News is about to "step away from all that" — a troubled and dysfunctional past — "and we'll see how it works, but I think Norah is a serious news person and working for a news president [Susan Zirinsky] who is unambiguous about what she wants. We'll see how it works, but to stay pat would be crazy."