Why the news anchors are so ancient.

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April 9 2002 5:14 PM

The Last Gerontocracy

Why the anchors are so ancient.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

The news lately about TV news has been all about age. ABC Entertainment wanted to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman because the median age of Letterman's audience at CBS is a lucrative few years younger than Koppel's. The ages of Cokie Roberts, 58, and Louis Rukeyser, 69, were pointedly mentioned in the coverage of their departures from This Week and Wall Street Week. Mike Wallace announced that he's cutting his 60 Minutes workload by half starting this fall, when he'll be 84. Even the disingenuous and highly entertaining hoo-ha concerning Paula Zahn's sexiness was about age (as well as gender) since she's only 46.

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Only 46?

In TV news these days, the mid-40s count as young. As a 47-year-old, I welcome this recalibration, even though I've always understood middle age to begin—or at least youth to definitively end—at 35. However, TV newspeople now in their mid-30s and early 40s, like George Stephanopoulos and Claire Shipman, are treated like cute, promising, precocious kids.

That's because the on-air network news establishment, like the Soviet establishment in its final days, has become a gerontocracy. In the 1980s, much was made of the fact that the average Politburo member was 67 years old, and that the endgame caretakers like Yuri Andropov (68 when he assumed power) and Konstantin Chernenko (72) were all creaky, decrepit old men.

None of our network news anchors—Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Ted Koppel—is creaky or decrepit, but for all their robustness they are … old, if by old we mean eligible to receive Social Security. Rather is 70, and the others are 67, 64, 62, and 62, respectively. The famously ancient on-air staff of 60 Minutes ranges in age from 83 (Wallace) down to 56 (Steve Kroft), for an average of 65—or 69, if you count 83-year-old Andy Rooney. ABC News' big star, Barbara Walters, is 70, and CNN's big star, Larry King, is 68. And MSNBC, the self-consciously "young" cable news channel, has just hired a glammy new prime-time host: Phil Donahue, 66.

Of course, the TV news audience is old, too, which is why news shows are loaded with commercials for Imodium, Viagra, Depends, and Dentu-Creme. The current median age of TV news viewers is around 57 or 58. Before Sept. 11—that is, before millions of youngsters in their 40s (temporarily) started watching more news—the median age of the audience was even higher. CNN's was 64.

The odd and interesting thing is that it didn't used to work this way. The first generation (Douglas Edwards at CBS, John Daly at ABC, John Cameron Swayze on NBC's Camel News Caravan) all became network anchormen in their 30s or early 40s—and were all shoved out by the time they hit 50. David Brinkley became NBC's co-anchor in 1956 at age 36, and Peter Jennings was ABC's anchor for three years in the mid-'60s, when he was in his 20s. Essentially every other network news anchor—Chet Huntley, Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, Frank Reynolds, Harry Reasoner, Walters, Rather, Brokaw, Lehrer—got the gig between the ages of 42 and 49. Thus, from the beginning until not very long ago, the iconic TV news anchor was by definition more 40ish or 50ish than 65ish.

So 65 is the new 50. Why? I think it's primarily an epiphenomenon of the baby boom. The national TV news anchor was invented during baby boomers' formative years, when all those anchors were roughly the same age as our parents. To be anchorlike was to be sober, wise, older, parental—and so it remains. Because baby boomers persist in thinking of themselves as youngish, they can't quite accept as bona fide an anchor who is not a decade or two older than they are. And because people in their 40s and 50s now run the culture—including its TV news operations—that cultural norm is enforced. In addition to baby boomer solipsism, there's some baby boomer nostalgia at work, too: Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw were the big three network news anchors back when there was nothing but three big networks. They are (so to speak) grandfathered in. Around 32 million people still watch one of the big three evening news programs, but in the age of 24/seven cable news, the form is nonetheless anachronistic, and the business is unexciting. When this last iconic generation finally goes, the evening news as we've known it will essentially go with them.

The hot, happening day part for TV news is, of course, the morning. The morning shows are cheaper to produce, minute for minute, than the evening shows and fill two or three hours of air time instead of a measly half-hour. They are more ad-friendly, both because of the programs' cheerfulness and living-room-conversation naturalism and because their aggregate audience, although less than half as big as the evening news audience, is younger. In television, viewers between 25 and 54 are referred to simply as "the demo." And so on the morning shows, where serious profits are at stake—Today earns hundreds of millions a year for NBC—éminences grises simply aren't permitted. On the morning shows, the age range is 34 (Jane Clayson) to 56 (Diane Sawyer).

Walter Cronkite was forced to retire at 64, after 19 years in the anchor chair. All four of the current evening-news anchors have had their jobs at least that long, and all but one are 64 or older. Over the next few years, as each of them moves on, it will be interesting to see if the younger half of the news audience will ever manage to attribute big-daddy gravitas to fellow forty- and fiftysomethings such as Aaron Brown, Brit Hume, and Brian Williams—let alone, say, Christiane Amanpour. I don't think most baby boomers will, just as they've found it impossible to regard as entirely presidential the first two presidents of their generation. A father figure one's own age is an oxymoron.

Kurt Andersen, the author of Turn of the Century, is now at work on his second novel. He's also the host of the public radio program Studio 360.