What's behind Dan Rather's ratings upswing?

THIS JUST IN Why are the ratings for CBS Evening News With Dan Rather —the perennial also-ran in network news—suddenly on the rise? To hear Rather tell it, it’s mainly thanks to the Eye’s commitment to serious journalism. ”We’ve been consistent in putting on a broadcast that is the hardest of the three newscasts,” he says.

A more likely reason, however, is that the network’s prime-time lineup is finally on the upswing. Plus, parent company CBS Corp. is using its vast holding of radio stations to promote Rather like there’s no tomorrow (or at least no World News Tonight). The Eye has even taken to the streets: Ask a cabbie in Washington, D.C., for a receipt and you’ll find Rather’s face grinning up at you from the slip.

Rather does concede the power of a good lead-in. ”I once believed in the cyclical nature of the business. Now I think that’s overrated,” he says. ”Give me Oprah, Jeopardy!, and Wheel of Fortune and I’ll win anywhere.”

Of course, many of ABC’s affiliates currently carry those syndicated shows, and they aren’t helping much. The Alphabet—which used to be the news leader—not only has lost the first-place spot to NBC’s Nightly News With Tom Brokaw but recently has been finishing third. Add on struggles at Good Morning America, tensions between longtime ABC News exec Roone Arledge and new president David Westin, and a string of key departures to CNN, and the result is major turmoil at the place where ”more Americans get their news.”

Anchor Peter Jennings agrees that ABC’s prime-time woes play a part in his ratings decline. But, he adds, the country is also ”trying to figure out what is important in news since the end of the Cold War.” And the emergence of hardcore cable news channels like CNN and MSNBC, plus the onslaught of the more sensational network newsmagazines and syndicated tabloid shows, isn’t making the viewers’ choice any easier.

As for NBC, the Peacock isn’t content with its No. 1 perch. The net is tired of rivals saying its news is too soft. ”All three are serious news programs,” gripes David Doss, exec producer of Nightly News, which, he notes, tries to do ”relevant news” and not overdo ”the drip-drip-drip process of Washington.” Sure, but how about getting Brokaw’s mug on some cab receipts?