No news is usually good news, but on Sept. 11, 1987, no news was a complete fiasco. That was the night Dan Rather stormed off the set of the CBS Evening News when a tennis match threatened to cut into his broadcast. After the final game ended sooner than expected, Rather’s tantrum left more than 100 stations scrambling to fill an unprecedented six minutes of dead airtime.
Rather already had a growing reputation for controversy. The previous fall, the anchor alleged he’d been assaulted late one night near his New York apartment building by two strangers who kept asking ”Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” A month before, he began signing off his broadcasts with the puzzling word ”Courage.” And the Texan had been experimenting with V-necked sweaters, ostensibly to soften his image. Nevertheless, the Evening News slipped to third place in the ratings during the summer, after more than 200 weeks in first.
CBS News staffers blamed part of the decline on CBS Sports. In late spring, the NBA play-offs pre-empted Evening News broadcasts — presumably driving viewers to ABC or NBC. On that fateful Sept. 11, when the sports division informed him that a U.S. Open women’s semifinal between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil would cut into the 6:30 p.m. News, the anchor marched out of the studio to phone his bosses. ”Sports should fill the half hour,” he reportedly commanded.
At 6:32, the Graf-McNeil match ended, but the wandering anchor was nowhere to be found. Affiliates posted ”Please stand by” signs, hustled their own anchors before the cameras, or threw on The Newlywed Game. By the time Rather was retrieved from a nearby office, more than half of the show’s average audience had tuned out. (Why was the other half still watching?)
In the week that followed, Rather was singed by a firestorm of criticism. Anchor emeritus Walter Cronkite told a reporter, ”I would have fired him. There’s no excuse for it.” Johnny Carson quipped that the six-minute hole ”turned out to be CBS’ highest rating of the year. They just signed the black screen for 13 weeks.”
”He blew it,” blasted Phil Jones, chairman of the CBS-TV affiliates’ advisory board. Today, Jones still scolds Rather. ”There’s a reason people are called anchors: They should be anchored and not get up.”
Chastened, Rather issued a written statement that stopped just short of an apology — which proved enough to save his estimated $2.5 million-a-year job. Even so, to this day, CBS Evening News remains mired in third place. And, in case you were wondering, Graf beat McNeil, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Time Capsule: September 11, 1987
Moviegoers kept their eyes and their feet busy with Dirty Dancing; TV viewers were attached to Family Ties; ”La Bamba” bounced on the airwaves; and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent presided over the best-seller list.