Wednesday, April 06, 2005

MY THOUGHTS ON PETER JENNINGS: ERA IS SLOWLY ENDING

I watched World News Tonight on Tuesday and as it turned out Elizabeth Vargas had to take over at the last minute because Peter Jennings decided his voice couldn't hack it because of the lung cancer.

Instead Jennings appeared in a taped announcement at the end of the broadcast to disclose that he had lung cancer, and I've got to say he sure didn't look or sound good at all. In fact he sounded really terrible, his voice was breaking all the time. He seemed to be struggling to get through his taped statement and sounded not at all like his normal self. Keith Olbermann over at MSNBC blogged about it and he found it excruciating and sad to watch as well.

It's obvious to me that Jennings is not going to be able to do this broadcast very often. The chemotherapy is just going to zap his energy and his voice won't be back in shape for a while at the very least. It was obvious just looking at him that old Charlie Gibson is going to have to fill in for Jennings a lot in the near future.

And then it hit me. This is it, the end of an era in TV news.

The Big 3 of TV news have truly left the scene, all of them. Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings. Oh sure, Peter will be back on the air ( we all hope ) but the broadcast is going to have to deal with a lot of substitute anchors for a while. In fact I think they should think of possibly naming a permanent co-anchor for the broadcast to take some of the load off of Jennings and his weak voice. The last thing Jennings ought to be doing is exerting himself right now.

But still. Brokaw, Rather, and now Jennings. If you want to count Ted Koppel and Bernard Shaw, too, that's 5 in a row. All of them, gone- except Jennings is still fighting like mad to stick around. His ABC News broadcast on Tuesday, though, looked to me like the TV news equivalent of Lou Gehrig's address at Yankee Stadium.

Now we have a brand-new era of, well, the anchorless newscast. NBC's in pretty good shape with Brian Williams, but CBS has a permanent substitute-anchor in Bob Schieffer, and ABC has a bunch of substitute anchors lined up for Jennings' bad days. And Fox News has no nightly news at all, but they do have Shepard Smith and a big assortment of news babes on their channel. So I think that all of a sudden we're in the era of news without news anchors, or with anonymous news anchors, whether anyone likes it or not. I should write an article about this. It's truly uncharted waters in the United States. Even in the 70s there were star news anchors, and in the 60s you had Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley. But here we are with a bunch of newscasts from the USA fronted by substitutes and replacements.

Now how does Tom Brokaw's retirement look today? Tom Brokaw's decision to retire, and the grooming of Brian Williams to replace him now looks like pure genius by NBC. Everyone said Williams would get his head blown off following Tom Brokaw but everyone forgot that everyone else was probably going to retire at some point. The surprise is that it happened so fast. Nobody saw Memogate coming and certainly no one expected this, Peter Jennings with lung cancer. The fact is that Williams has done a great job at NBC, and they had been grooming him for years, so seeing him anchor a newscast at 6:30 PM didn't come as a complete jolt to people. The moment Williams stepped right in to take over from Brokaw, everyone over at NBC realized things were going to be just fine after all. The same can not be said for any of the other major networks.

And my heart goes out to Jennings. You know what, I had described Dan Rather's exit along the lines of "going out on a stretcher." But this is way worse than what happened with Rather, if Jennings goes out the way Frank Reynolds did, or the way Barbara Frum did. When Barbara Frum died the whole country was in mourning, and they devoted a whole newscast to her and they named the atrium at the CBC after her. A lot of good that was, she died.

I hear Jennings could be in really bad shape. I read Howie Kurtz in the Washington Post and he said that Jennings is only going for chemotherapy, no surgery or any of that, suggesting this is a pretty advanced form of lung cancer he's got. And the survival rate for lung cancer is pretty grim, it's one of the lowest survival rates. I remember when hockey announcer Dan Kelly was diagnosed with lung cancer and knocked off the air. In fact he didn't come back, he died pretty quickly. Supposedly the treatment for lung cancer these days is a lot better.

But this is still a shock.

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