Each night at 6:30 sharp, three men deliver the news. They are competent, experienced, and authoritative -- all those things a big-time anchor must be. They are usually with us in times of great urgency, and even act as voices of reason.
But they are also what nightly network anchors have always been, with very few exceptions. They are white, male and middle-aged.
And so, beyond the headlines, posturing and anger of Connie Chung's ouster as co-anchor of the "CBS Evening News," there lurks a bona fide issue.
It is an issue as old as network television news itself. And it tends to burst into full view only when something sensational happens, only to be forgotten when the dust settles. The issue, simply, is this: Will a woman, or a black, Latinoor Asian person ever become sole anchor of one of the major nightly newscasts?
With Ms. Chung's departure, it would appear that the prospect for permanent change is about as dim as it has ever been. But appearances, say industry observers, just might be misleading. There is a growing consensus in TV news circles that a minority man or a woman will be anchor on one of the three major network news programs by the turn of the century. If not sooner.
"I honestly believe," says "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw, "that the country is less interested in gender, ethnicity and age than it is in credibility and authority on the job." During a recent on-line chat, he went so far as to call the current crop of network anchormen "dinosaurs."
Perversely, it is the great decline of the network evening newscasts that may finally open the top anchor jobs to women and minorities. When Walter Cronkite's "Evening News" reigned in the '70s, or the "Huntley-Brinkley Report" in the '60s, each program would regularly attract more than 30 percent of the available audience each weeknight. Now, all three programs combined are fortunate to reach those levels.
For this reason, news executives no longer expect such programs to appeal to all viewers at all times. A woman or Latino may, in fact, be more representative of a future viewing audience.
Marlene Sanders, who handled some anchor duties with ABC News and CBS News in the '60s and '70s, offers what is perhaps a more cynical view of the future. Co-author, with Marcia Rock, of the 1988 "Waiting for Prime Time," a history of women in network news, Ms. Sanders found that most women -- with a few exceptions -- have smacked into the glass ceiling over the years.
While she concedes that cracks in the ceiling have finally appeared, it doesn't necessarily reflect a change in attitude. "I'm afraid that as [evening network newscasts] become less important, management can put those people who were on the 'outs' in," says Ms. Sanders, who now teaches at Columbia. "It won't matter. Put a black, Asian, whatever in there, but they won't get a big rating anyway. So as the show business celebrity factor means less, [management] can put someone in who's simply good," regardless of race or sex.
The history of minorities and women in the anchor chairs at "CBS Evening News," "ABC World News Tonight" or "NBC Nightly News" is brief: Barbara Walters' 1976-1978 ill-starred turn with Harry Reasoner, Max Robinson's 1978-1983 membership in "World News Tonight's" failed triumvirate, and now Ms. Chung. Upper management at each network news division is overwhelmingly white and male. But network TV news has made strides in promoting blacks and women in recent years. And indeed, two of the most powerful people in the business are women -- Ms. Walters and Diane Sawyer.
Another fact: TV news is a business. Viewers, in effect, get what they ask for -- or at least what research says they want.
So who -- at this moment -- are the anchor stars of the future? Those most often mentioned in TV circles are white and male. ABC's Forrest Sawyer is a talented, veteran anchorman who one day will likely head up a broadcast at some network. Brian Williams, chief White House correspondent for NBC News, is widely considered heir to Mr. Brokaw's throne.
And yes, there are women and blacks who are considered anchors-in-waiting. Ed Bradley of "60 Minutes" is a superb anchorman, but has said he's happy where he is.
ABC News' Catherine Crier, another future star, says she's "optimistic" about the future of women and minorities although "it is very ingrained in the business that the traditional white male anchor is the voice of authority and source of the news for the nation."
But, "with more women and minorities involved in producing and delivering the news, . . . it's a historical inevitability. It's just a question of time."