WASHINGTON — Dan Rather may be the last person to anchor "The CBS Evening News." Tom Brokaw may be the last anchor of "NBC Nightly News." Peter Jennings may be the last anchor of "ABC World News Tonight."
There are smart people in the business who doubt that all three network evening newscasts will survive the '90s. Some even wonder whether all three network news departments will. In the '80s, all three have undergone radical, humbling budget surgery under new corporate owners.
Local news, which once couldn't see beyond the city limits, now has the capacity to beam in far-flung correspondents via satellite equipment. Network news, some experts say, could become just a headline service that local stations insert piecemeal into their own newscasts.
The incredibly dramatic developments in China over recent weeks are a graphic reminder that network news still has a vital role and a strong identity. And each network brought unique distinctions to its coverage.
Certainly the networks can't be accused of sluggishness on the story. They were there for the peaceful protests that began it and the brutal violence that followed.
Dan Rather rushed home from a fishing trip when the violence erupted, even though he'd just had three exhausting weeks reporting from China and Europe. Tom Brokaw had scheduled a vacation visit to Pakistan but canceled it so he could anchor NBC's coverage. Peter Jennings was rushed back from Europe on a Sunday morning Concorde.
The presence of network anchors is important on big stories like this. We have come to expect it. And with network news departments fighting for survival, it's wise for them to make their profiles as high as possible. Anchor presence helps that. It's a signal to viewers of potential momentousness.
Of course it's the reporters and crews in China who've been doing the tough work. Just getting the pictures out has been a challenge. ABC drafted "Nightline" producer Kyle Gibson to do reporting chores, and one night Ted Koppel debriefed an ABC cameraman on the air.
The reporting is not done without risk. Gibson reported on "Nightline" that a military truck filled with soldiers had a sign posted on the side that was directed at TV news crews. It said, "If you shoot us, we'll shoot you."
Some of the images from China have been penetrating and poignant. Even George Bush was impressed, as he acknowledged at a press conference and, later, during a speech to businessmen. He was especially touched by pictures of an anguished young man confronting the first tank in a row of 18 lined up on an avenue in Beijing.
"That image, I think, is going to be with us a long time," Bush said.
It is a pity that network news only seems to go global in times of crisis or catastrophe. The Cable News Network has to be credited with stressing international news all the time, something it does partly because CNN is viewable throughout Europe, in parts of Africa, even in hotel rooms in Beijing.
For the most part, American television encourages a myopic, ethnocentric and provincial view. All prime-time entertainment series are set in this country, usually in the present. One ABC series last season, "A Fine Romance," was about a pair of zanies romping around Europe and was filmed there, but it barely got off the ground before being canceled.
America's place in the world has changed greatly in the '80s. Its dependence on foreign economies has gone up, its old dominance waned. The question is whether TV will prepare people for the changing world or keep us wrapped in a cocoon--awaken us to new frontiers or seal them off.
One reason the network evening newscasts are endangered species is that their viewership is eroding. What viewers they have tend to be older. Young people won't watch news when they have sitcom reruns, cartoons and MTV to distract them.
Tragic as much of it has been, a story like the crisis in China can have the galvanizing effect of alerting people to the importance of information in their lives, of heightening a sense of planet. In showing us China, television is also helping us to see ourselves.