How The Ratings Have Fallen

Last night the CBS Evening News tied its all-time low for viewers in a week.  Only 4.89 million viewers tuned in.  For that same week, about 19 million Americans — only a miniscule fraction of our total estimated population of 309 million — watched one of the three network nightly news shows.

This is a far cry from 1969, when Huntley & Brinkley and Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and half of all American households watched one of the three network news shows.   In 1980, 55 million Americans watched the evening news, and as late as 1993 more than 40 million Americans watched nightly newscasts. In short, in 17 years, as the population of the United States has grown, nightly news viewership has been cut by more than half.

Why?  I’m sure that having more viewing options, the ability to get news at any time through the internet or 24-hour cable news, and longer work days that make it harder to be home and in front of the set at 6:30, all have had an impact.  No doubt the identity of the anchors also is relevant; Katie Couric just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Walter Cronkite.  And perhaps Americans don’t really feel like the “news” reported by the networks is all that compelling any more, given the prevalence of “for your health” segments and other lifestyle pieces and concerns from some corners about biased reporting.

Although the causes of this phenomenon may be debatable, the consequences are not.  Whereas nightly news anchors used to have tremendous influence because they had tremendous audiences, that is no longer the case.  Political campaigns used to focus on getting shown on the nightly news because even a few moments of footage would define the public’s perception.  Now, if the NBC Nightly News decides not to cover a politician’s comments, that politician can count on getting the message out through friendly talking heads on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, or through blogs or Youtube.  Events are no longer seen through one lens or defined by one report.  That is bad news for the networks, but it is probably good for democracy that a few people no longer have a chokehold on the images presented to Americans over their dinners.

Walter Cronkite and “Go, Baby, Go!”

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite was the news broadcaster of choice when I was a kid.  Really, there was no choice, because it was no competition.  Cronkite had all of the qualities that you would want in a television anchorman.  He was avuncular, trustworthy, deep-voiced, and unflappable.  Even bad news — and it seemed like there was a lot of that during the ’60s and ’70s — was a bit more palatable when you heard it from the mouth of Walter Cronkite.

Cronkite ruled during an era when the way people got their news started to transition from newspapers to television, and he was hugely popular.  When it was time for the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite, people would finish their dinner and watch a half hour of news, knowing that it would close with Cronkite saying “and that’s the way it was.”  He had enormous credibility and seemed like a living, walking barometer of American public opinion.  Some historians, for example, trace the change in American public opinion about the Vietnam War to Cronkite’s personal change of opinion about the value of continuing that conflict.

As important as Cronkite was to calming jangled nerves during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in the aftermath of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, the Watts riots, or the 1968 Democratic convention, I remember him best for another role he played.  When I was young, the “space Race” between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed enormously important.  If there was a rocket launch during school hours, we all would troop into the auditorium and watch to see whether America could successfully take the next step toward reaching the Moon.  Cronkite anchored all of the rocket launches and coverage of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space activities.  He seemed to be an enthusiastic supporter of our space exploration efforts who enjoyed the science and wonder of the effort.

I remember him rooting the rockets along, urging “Go, Baby, Go!”   I’m not sure an anchorperson would say such a thing in this more jaded era, but during the early 1960s it was a more innocent time, and Walter Cronkite helped to capture it.