Is the era of the ‘big beast’ news anchor over?

In light of US anchors losing their shows with little impact on viewing figures, BBC Radio 4's Today programme presenter Justin Webb wonders what the future holds for British broadcasters

Huw Edwards in N9 news studio for the Ten O'Clock news

I’m still scarred by that morning. The usual early start. The frantic reading of briefs. Then into the studio a few seconds before the start of the Today programme at 6am – the sound of the pips.

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I look down at the script: “Good morning and welcome to Today. With John Humphrys and John Humphrys.”

Oh yes: I know all about being airbrushed. About the power of the big beast anchor. Who sucks up all the attention. And money.

So imagine how closely I’ve been following the news from America. The news is this. Someone has finally said it: the emperor has no clothes. At times that wasn’t a figure of speech. Some of the self-styled emperors we’re talking about didn’t have clothes at the time of their misdeeds, or wore only those towelling wraps provided by hotels for men (so some of them apparently thought) conducting business with women guests.

But now they are gone. It hasn’t made big news here, compared with the Hollywood trainwreck, but it should because in one important respect it might be showing us the future for news programmes.

What has happened in America in the past six months is the self-destruction of the network anchor. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Matt Lauer, who hosted NBC’s long-running morning show Today, and Charlie Rose of CBS’s morning show weren’t just kings, they were titans. O’Reilly and Lauer were paid $25 million each. Rose survived on only $8 million but had his own franchise on another channel, so we’re given to understand he didn’t have to queue for a bus.

All three have been credibly accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct, and all have gone. But here is what happened next. The ratings for their shows stayed the same, or actually rose.

As Vanity Fair magazine put it, in a headline that only slightly jumped the gun: “Today and CBS This Morning Prove They Never Needed Matt Lauer or Charlie Rose.”

My point is that if this headline is right – and it seems to be – this has implications that go far further than the simpering jollified world of American breakfast TV.

They were spelled out for online news website The Daily Beast by US media analyst Andrew Tyndall: “It’s just not true that the reason why people watch television is to watch celebrities, and the only way you get celebrities is by paying them disproportionate amounts of money over what they’re worth.”

We have lazily assumed that although everything else about the modern media landscape has changed, there is something oddly immutable about the network anchor. The public want a star to tell them things.

And that star (in America) must be paid a staggering sum of money. Nobody thought to wonder whether it was actually true.

Well, they are wondering now. As The Daily Beast suggested, “A growing number of industry insiders say good riddance to overpaid rubbish.”

And so to us. Yes Huw, yes John: us.

And a serious point. British TV anchors are not like their US counterparts: they are paid a lot but not nearly as much and, crucially, they are not the bosses of their own programmes. There are separate editors at the BBC, Sky and ITV news who can and do keep the big beasts in line. But still you have to wonder.

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For all of us who call ourselves “presenters”, what does the future hold? Time to keep the towelling wrap tightly knotted and practise the look straight to camera that says, “It’s all about me…”