May 19, 2024

Front-Runner for CBS Anchor Is ‘60 Minutes’ Reporter

He checked all the television correspondent boxes — wars, elections, economic crises, a stint at the White House, a memorable interview with the president — and 12 years ago he made it onto “60,” where he was and is one of the youngest correspondents. This season, he has had more air time than any other contributor.

Now Mr. Pelley is in line to succeed Katie Couric as anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” While the network maintains that there are other candidates, it is “Scott’s to lose,” one CBS executive said on condition of anonymity last week.

Some of Mr. Pelley’s colleagues privately worry that the “Evening News” could be construed as a demotion for him. That worry shows just how much the job has changed, but it belies an opportunity for Mr. Pelley and his biggest backer, Jeff Fager, who was named the chairman of CBS News last winter. Mr. Fager appears intent to remove the word “beleaguered” from descriptions of his news division, and replacing an outsider, Ms. Couric, with Mr. Pelley could be part of the reconstruction.

Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a newsletter about the network newscasts, said Mr. Fager’s “ascension at CBS News is clearly a return to the division’s tradition of loyalty and promotion from within.”

Mr. Pelley, 53, has worked at CBS News for most of his professional life. Dan Rather, a friend of his who anchored the “Evening News” from 1981 to 2005, called him a “true believer in the CBS legend, history and myth.”

“There is some risk in this for Pelley and for CBS News,” Mr. Rather said last week. “But it’s a risk worth taking. And if they do it, I think they will succeed.”

Mr. Pelley would most likely remain on “60 Minutes” in a reduced role. “The risk is that he’s spread too thin,” Mr. Rather said. “I say that as one who probably made that mistake myself.”

For “CBS Evening News,” the chief goal since Mr. Rather’s tenure has been to climb out of third place among the nightly newscasts. The No. 1 newscast, “NBC Nightly News,” is anchored by Brian Williams, and the No. 2, ABC’s “World News,” is anchored by Diane Sawyer.

Ms. Couric’s contract expires in early June. If she departs as expected, it is unclear when her replacement would start.

Via e-mail last week, Mr. Pelley declined an interview request. His associates said he was wary to appear to be campaigning for the anchor job. That happened last time, in 2004 and 2005, when he and John Roberts were believed to be candidates to succeed Mr. Rather.

In an interview then with The Observer, Mr. Pelley emphasized his reporting experience, saying, “I think the audience can tell the difference between someone who is a brilliant reader of the Teleprompter, and someone who has the experience and who has been in the field, who has covered the stories and knows what they’re doing.”

Were Mr. Pelley to get the job, CBS would probably market him as a world traveler and top interviewer. Recently, he received attention for a March 6 segment about homeless children in central Florida, which prompted more than $5 million in pledges for the local homeless population; and a March 20 segment about the people affected by the earthquake and tsunami in northern Japan, in which he concluded, “There are not enough living to take care of the dead.”

Mr. Pelley grew up in Lubbock, Tex., and went to a state school there, Texas Tech University. “No one wanted to hire me,” Mr. Pelley told students there in a commencement address in 2009. “No newspaper, television station, television network that I worked for ever wanted to hire me. I was not recruited by anyone,” he said.

Nonetheless, he was hired by the ABC affiliate in town, and then by the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, and then, in 1982, by the ABC affiliate in Dallas, WFAA, one of the biggest stations in the country.

Mr. Rather called Mr. Pelley “unrelentingly persistent and determined.”

In 1989, Mr. Pelley started at CBS News as a correspondent. He made a name for himself, Mr. Tyndall said, as the White House correspondent during President Bill Clinton’s second term, when the Lewinsky scandal led newscasts. At that time, Mr. Fager was the producer of the “Evening News.”

Mr. Fager soon left to start up “60 Minutes II,” a weekday expansion of the newsmagazine, and within a year he brought Mr. Pelley over to it. Mr. Pelley, who recalled once wearing cowboy boots into the Oval Office, became a favored interviewer of President George W. Bush, including the president’s only interview on the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Later, he traveled unembedded into Iraq during the start of the war. When Mr. Fager succeeded Don Hewitt at “60 Minutes” in 2004, Mr. Pelley joined him there, as well.

“60 Minutes” is watched by about 15 million viewers each Sunday, while the “CBS Evening News” is watched by five million to six million each weekday. Together, the three newscasts have been gradually giving up audience share for decades, which is why some have implied that the “Evening News” would be a demotion for Mr. Pelley.

But the anchor job is also a leadership job for the entire news division. Mr. Pelley seems to sense that; last June, when he filled in for Ms. Couric on the “Evening News” for three days, he “played the part,” a senior CBS official said. The person, like others there, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The executive said, “Pelley came in early every day; called everybody and went over their scripts; and after each piece aired, he called each producer on their way home and said, ‘Great piece.’ Everyone thought, ‘This would be heaven.’ ”

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