WASHINGTON – National TV newscasts have tried just about every kind of anchor configuration over the past six decades: A lone male anchor. A lone female. Two men. A man and a woman. Even three men.
But two women? Perish the thought. No national evening broadcast has ever dared put a pair of women on air together to read the news each day. Apparently, as a character in the 2004 satire of 1970s culture Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy put it: Its anchorman, not anchorlady! And that is a scientific fact.
Starting with its broadcast this evening, the PBS Newshour will feature two women in the anchor chairs. The venerable program – anchored for years by founding fathers Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer and lately by a series of rotating anchors – will be co-anchored by Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.
The new era at Newshour will start out with a big get: Ifill will interview President Barack Obama today as part of his round robin of media interviews to build support for a U.S. military strike against Syria. The interview will air tonight.
Locally, Newshour airs at 6 p.m. on WFWA, Channel 39.
Woodruff and Ifill have anchored Newshour before, alone or in combination with each other (they handled the political conventions and election night last year together). Still, their installation as regular co-anchors is a small cultural milestone for American TV news.
Such a pairing is a no-brainer, given the duos experience and familiarity to Newshour viewers, Woodruff says. If you have two people on your team who really click, what difference does it really make if they happen to be women?
Nevertheless, Woodruff, 66, acknowledges the symbolic import of the moment. Coming in with the first wave of female TV reporters and anchors in the early 1970s, she recalls looking for her first job and being brushed off by news directors with some variation of We dont believe a womans voice is authoritative.
Ifill, 57, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter, was a later arrival to TV, starting with NBC News in the mid-1990s and moving to public television as host of PBS Washington Week in 1999. She notes the first of her partnership with Woodruff, but plays down its significance.
Were moving on the assumption that people want to see us, and the woman thing doesnt help or hurt, she said. Viewers know us, and know what theyre getting.
Following the all-male, Huntley-Brinkley era of TV news, women were first paired with men on local newscasts in the 1970s to create contrast, notes Bob Papper, a former news director and Hofstra University professor who has studied newsroom demographics for almost 20 years. The notion was that the two genders balanced each other, with a womans softer style providing contrast to the mans harder edge.
The most famous him-and-her combo on network news – Dan Rather and Connie Chung on CBS – was a notable disaster. The lack of chemistry, even tension, between Chung and Rather doomed the anchor team to a run of just 23 months between 1993 and 1995. Rather then took back the solo gig.
The Rather-Chung fiasco may have taught the networks a lesson. Since that time, the three leading broadcast networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) have used solo anchors on their evening newscasts. Cable news networks, with 24 hours of airtime to fill each day, have experimented with different anchor formats, but none has ever used two women, according to two veteran cable-news producers.