On June 6, 2011, Scott Pelley took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News, his tenure following Katie Couric’s five-year run. The once-dominant newscast had fallen to third place behind NBC and ABC during the end of Dan Rather’s reign, and Couric’s stint saw the broadcast fall to record ratings lows. While still No. 3 among the Big Three, the CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley has seen significant growth since the Texan took over after a long run at sibling 60 Minutes. In the past year, the 6:30 PM broadcast has added 490,000 viewers, the largest annual increase for the network’s evening news in 15 years and the best among the broadcast news rivals since 2002. Overall, the CBS Evening News is up 12% in viewers since Pelley’s debut. Just before his second anniversary in the anchor chair, Deadline spoke with Pelley about the relevance of cable news and why so many mistakes are getting on the air.
DEADLINE: In an age where the news is a 24-hour business, how can a 6:30 PM once-a-day broadcast still give the reach and the immediacy that news stories require?
PELLEY: You know, never in human history has there been so much information available to so many people. But never in human history has there been so much bad information available to so many people. And I think people are looking for brand names that they can trust and CBS News is one of those. The other half of this is that folks are busy. They’re going to work, they’re going to school they’re getting the kids off to school, and they care about the world; they want to know about the world but they don’t have a lot of time to spend on that. So what were offering at the evening news is, within 30 minutes we’re going to tell you about the 12 most important things that happened in the world. And you’re going to get that from the CBS News brand, which you already trust. And I think that’s why we’ve added a million viewers in the last 2 years and why we grew so much this last year in particular.
DEADLINE: You said recently you believe that there’s a crisis in journalism, saying that the house is on fire: there are too many mistakes, things are being put up too fast, it’s too sloppy, and there is too great a reliance on social media.
PELLEY: The country is only as strong as its journalism — that’s the way democracies work. The higher the quality of the information, the better informed the electorate is and the better the government runs. And the American people can always be trusted with the information. What I was talking about in that particular speech is remaining vigilant to those goals. Too often in recent months and maybe over the last couple of years, in the haste to be first with a piece of news, a news organization has gotten it wrong and I was just suggesting that that race to be first is a bankrupt pursuit. It’s meaningless. It doesn’t mean anything to anyone except those of us within the industry. It’s a game that we play on our own control rooms to see who got something first. It has no value whatsoever to the audience and I think a little bit of humility on the part of journalism would serve it and the audience very well, that we should care less about competing with each other and care more about delivering the highest-quality product that we can to the audience. So that’s what I was driving at there. We’re a human institution and, worst of all things, we’re a human institution on deadline. So mistakes are going to get made all the time. At CBS and everywhere else. But the goal should always be to deliver the highest-quality product that we can.
DEADLINE: You have talked about the mistake that you yourself made in the Newtown coverage as something that concerned you.
PELLEY: In the immediate aftermath of Newtown, when there was a lot of information flowing out of there from police sources, and we reported that, and others reported, some information that was incorrect about what happened and that Nancy Lanza was a teacher at the school and that her son had attacked her classroom. We were not the only ones to report that but in the frenzy to get information on the air, we reported that and others reported that. And that really started me reflecting on the rush to get things on the air that were not completely verified. And then when others reported in Boston that someone had been arrested two days before that had actually happened, then I started to really become concerned. And there had been concern before when a couple of the cable channels got the Supreme Court’s ruling wrong on the president’s healthcare [law]. One of our best moments ever was that day. Other people were reporting that the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Healthcare Act, but our correspondent Jan Crawford has covered the Supreme Court for decades, she’s written a book about the Supreme Court, and she knew that you got to read past the first couple of pages to see what’s really going on. And so Jan is on the air live telling me “wait a minute, wait a minute, let me read this.” Other people are on fire saying that the healthcare law had been struck down in its entirely and Jan finds like, I don’t know, on like Page 36, that in fact it hasn’t been struck down.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about what else is going when we talk about news — specifically TV news on cable. Fox News Channel is still solidly No. 1. However, Jeff Zucker has said that CNN is now more broadly defining what news is and MSNBC’s Phil Griffin says his network is not the place for breaking news. What do you see going on with cable news?
PELLEY: I think the various cable channels are trying to discover who they are by searching for niches in the marketplace where they can create a business model that works for them. CBS News is not trying to figure out who it is. We’ve known who we are for many, many decades. And so that’s why you see CBS News being constant and not announcing that we’re changing the definition of news or that we’re veering left or veering right. These are channels that are new, relatively new, and are still trying to figure out what they want to do and who they want to be.
DEADLINE: So for you, other outlets especially the cable news networks do center on just one segment of the political spectrum in their reporting?
PELLEY: Certainly. It’s no surprise. Fox is associated with the right and MSNBC is associated with the left and they’ve done that because it is a business model. It’s a strategy. They’ve decided to bite off one small part of the viewership and be happy with that 200,000 viewers, 300,000 viewers that they have. But when you are talking to 7 million viewers across the country, man you have got to represent everybody’s views and have got to give them the impression that you are being as honest as you know how to be.
DEADLINE: While the news flow on cable may be in the hundreds of thousands, a lot of people are watching Bill O’Reilly, a couple of million a night. Same thing with Hannity.
PELLEY: We measure our audience in millions. They’re not big numbers. People talk about cable a lot and cable has a very high profile. Not a lot of people watch cable news, they just don’t. If you look at the Nielsen numbers, the cable channels have a few hundred thousand viewers at any given moment. The CBS Evening News again has 7 million viewers, ABC has 8 million viewers. Brian [NBC’s Williams] has almost 9 million. Altogether we have about 25 million viewers on any given night. That’s a very different order of magnitude.
DEADLINE: NBC has MSNBC. Obviously, Fox has Fox News. Do you think it’s time for CBS to get its own cable news network?
PELLEY: You know, I wonder whether we might have moved beyond the time of the cable news network. Isn’t it all going to the Internet now? Is there really a reason for a news organization such as ours to establish a cable channel when we could establish a much bigger footprint if you will, on the Internet? So, these are decisions that are not at all up to me. We’ve got a lot of really smart people who think about these things and work on these things, but if you ask me, I wonder whether that’s a necessary step any more.
DEADLINE: But what is CBS News online going to tell me at 2 in the afternoon about a protest in Turkey, or am I going to have to wait until 6:30 to get the story?
PELLEY: We’re going to give you the latest reporting that we have on any given story at any given time. We break stories on our website all the time. We’ll have our correspondent at the White House or somewhere in the world call in with a scoop. The person who runs the CBS News website sits about 15 feet away from me and we’ll often tell a reporter to call the Internet desk and let’s break that story right now. So very often we’re breaking stories online hours before they appear on the evening news.
DEADLINE: With breaking stories like the bombing in Boston and the tornados in Oklahoma, you’ve been breaking into regularly scheduled daytime programming a lot lately. It almost turns you into cable when you do that and go to wall–to-wall coverage.
PELLEY:We only do that on big stories. The problem the cable channels have is they have to fill 24 hours. That’s a terrible thing. We only do that on the biggest stories. The thing is there has happened to be a lot of big stories lately with the tornado that you mentioned, and of course Boston had to be reported right away. So we are being very aggressive about covering the news and if there is a story that rises to national importance we want to be there live, covering it as it happens. And I think that the audience is been seeing a lot of that from the evening news. We’ve also been taking the evening news broadcast to a lot of the scenes of these stories. Because it is all about the reporting. So we bring in a lot of reporters, correspondents, producers, etc, to all these big stories so that we can do the reporting first-hand, see it for ourselves and get it on the air as quickly as possible. That’s just part of the philosophy of Jeff Fager and David Rhodes. They have told us that they want to be aggressive about covering the news and that’s what we’re doing.
DEADLINE: To that point and with your growth and 60 Minutes ongoing strength, are we going to see another News program on CBS this season or soon?
PELLEY: I do not know. That’s the honest answer, I do not know. You are going to see whatever Leslie [Moonves] wants, that’s what you’re going to see. And if Leslie has something afoot in that area, I have not been apprised.