NBC’s Brian Williams is anchoring his nightly newscast from South Africa early this week, covering the world’s mourning for Nelson Mandela, but he won’t have some of his usual company.
ABC and CBS are keeping top anchors Diane Sawyer and Scott Pelley in New York, where George Stephanopoulos will also be located Tuesday when he anchors an early morning ABC special on Mandela. The moves show how economics and a dwindling interest in international news are changing the biggest broadcast networks, where a decade ago there would have been little question that their most prominent faces would be on hand for such a big story.
“We agreed here that this is a moment in history and he needed and wanted to be there,” said Patrick Burkey, executive producer of Williams’ “Nightly News.” '‘We spent a whole lot more time figuring out how to do it than whether or not we should.”
It was particularly important to Williams, who interviewed Mandela shortly after he was released from a South African prison, he said.
The only other time Williams has anchored from overseas in 2012 and 2013 was surrounding the London Summer Olympics, for which NBC was the exclusive rights-holder in the United States, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who tracks evening news content.
Both Pelley and Sawyer reported from Rome this year on the selection of a new pope. Pelley also anchored a night from London last year, though it wasn’t clear why he was there, Tyndall said.
All three of the news broadcasts have cut back on foreign coverage, with that trend most apparent in anchors’ travels, he said.
“It was a luxury at a time when they were flush,” Tyndall said. “It was never about ratings. It was done for publicity and promotion, to boost the anchors’ prestige and to show that the network was on top of the news.”
Competition also played a big part: when Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather were the top anchors, if word got out that one of them was traveling to a big story, the other two usually headed to the airport.
Earlier in her tenure, Sawyer traveled to Haiti for an earthquake there and to Japan in the wake of a tsunami, Tyndall noted, and the amount of travel for domestic stories hasn’t changed much. But none of the top anchors went to the Philippines this year following one of the world’s most powerful typhoons.
“Of course, economics play into the decisions,” Burkey said. “But for us, if it’s a big story, we want to be there.”
CBS and ABC point out that they have experienced reporters in South Africa. Mark Phillips, Allen Pizzey and Debora Patta, who have all covered Mandela from the days of apartheid, are at memorial services for CBS. Anne-Marie Green, who anchors the network’s “Up To the Minute” overnight newscast, is anchoring a Tuesday early morning special report.
Terry Moran, Byron Pitts and Alex Marquardt will report from South Africa for ABC. ABC also said it did a full hour on “World News” on Mandela on Thursday and covered the story two nights for “Nightline.”
Cable news networks are taking different approaches, too. For CNN, anchors Christiane Amanpour, Anderson Cooper and Chris Cuomo are all in South Africa. The two opinion-dominated networks, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, are not sending any of their chief anchors.