Tuned In

Scott Pelley's Ratings: Is America Ready for a Male News Anchor?

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The ratings are in for the first week of Scott Pelley‘s anchoring of the CBS Evening News. Everyone knows that you can’t tell much by an anchor’s first week alone; everyone, including the network, will try to. So how did he do? Depends who you ask. According to some of the immediate press reactions, he showed a worrisome lack of improvement on Katie Couric. According to CBS, he showed impressive growth!

A look at the merits of both interpretations / spin attempts, and then the reason it probably doesn’t matter much.

The negative spin first: Pelley didn’t give CBS a big first tune-in bounce, and the immediate headline was that, at 5.7 million viewers, he brought in no more viewers than Couric did when she left. Granted, Pelley was brought in with relatively little fanfare—but Couric’s leaving was not exactly a state secret, and he at least had a more prominent launch than second-place Diane Sawyer, who stepped in over the Christmas holiday.

CBS must have noticed the headlines, because in short order there were follow-up stories that bore all the signs of distraught calls from the network. (You can practically hear Bill Carter’s phone ringing in this one.) These news stories emphasized that, compared with how CBS did the same week in 2010, Pelley increased ratings by 6 percent in total viewers (though the rating in viewers 25 to 54, on which the show’s ad revenues are based, stayed roughly the same).

There’s something to CBS’s argument that the salient comparison is not between a week in June and a week in May (or the whole month). But of course CBS left something important out too: a comparison with how every other network did against a year earlier. When you factor that in, as TV Newser did, the results are not disastrous, but not flattering to CBS and Pelley earlier. Every other network also showed growth that week. (This is important for an apples-to-apples comparison, because no two news weeks are the same; last June may have been slower, e.g.) CBS did have the highest gain of the networks, TV Newser said—but, “soft launch” or no, that’s to be expected; no gain at all would have been hard to put a good face on.

Conclusion: Pelley didn’t do horribly; he didn’t do great. And neither necessarily matters, for 10 reasons: (1) it’s a long-term game and (2 through 10) Pelley is widely believed to have come far, far cheaper than the $15 million Couric cost. Ratings are money; but saving money will forgive a lot in ratings.

So is America ready for the shock of a white man heading the CBS Evening News? Time will tell. In the meantime, I can’t wait for all the features about the catfight between Pelley and Brian Williams. Rowwwwr!