Like most other people my age, I haven't watched the news on TV in a very long time, not since high school in the mid-to-late 1990s. At college I suddenly had access to hard copies of newspapers from around the world, and about the same time every major paper began distributing their content for free over the internet. Bye-bye TV news coverage.
So imagine my shock the other day when I caught a bit of the local news on the same NBC station I used to watch 15 to 20 years ago — and saw the exact same crew of anchors! I even remembered some of their names before they introduced themselves.
I headed over to NBC4's website roster to see who all was still there, and the answer was — everyone! Jim Handly, Wendy Rieger, Barbara Harrison, Pat Collins, Tom Kierein, and of course Jim Vance, who was already stumbling over his words in old age back in the '90s. The incumbency problem was worse than I'd suspected, as most of them began working for the station in the '80s (Vance was the only one there since the early '70s).
Sure, there are lots of new young reporters who I didn't recognize, but by the looks of who's still sitting in the anchors' chairs, they won't ever be moving up. Only one incumbent, Joe Krebs, is retiring.
You'd probably see the same thing for the anchors in your own neck of the woods, although I'm not interested enough in the topic to actually check into other major markets.
But we sure do see that at the national level. Starting in the early 1980s, three incoming anchors ruled the roost for the better part of a quarter-century (Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather). If old age did not get in the way, they would have kept at it even longer. Only Cronkite had a similarly long tenure during the Midcentury.
Now it's common to anchor some national news program or another for 20 years or longer. Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, Al Roker — the list goes on and on. And they all began their star roles during the '80s and afterward.
As a result of the big figures never stepping down from their Establishment positions, the soaring numbers of journalism majors have tried to carve out newer and ever more niche, er, niches for themselves. They're gonna be a somebody, somewhere.
That's why most websites nowadays have jumping-off links to more and more "new media" sites where, unlike on NBC Nightly News, you can read all about The 17 Ways You're Annoying Your Roommates, or The 11 Most Dishonest Lies That Republicans Are Spreading About Healthcare, or The 11 Most Dishonest Lies That Democrats Are Spreading About Gun Control, etc. etc. etc.
These new media types are not vying for the anchor spot on a national broadcast news program, and they may not even have a journalism degree like those who write for major newspapers. The point is that incumbency at the top and increasing interest in being a journalist has a ripple effect all the way out to those Weird New Trick sites.
You see the same phenomenon in late night talk shows. There were a bunch of variety and talk shows in the '40s during the heyday of radio, but they didn't continue to dominate the industry into the '60s and '70s. Carson was the only one to begin in the Midcentury and last for several decades, like Cronkite. (Dick Cavett, who was a hit in the '70s, didn't last for two decades.) Everyone else has been on since the '80s or early '90s, and were loathe to leave — Letterman, Leno, Conan. You can bet that Jon Stewart and Howard Stern will be clinging for dear life to their spots, too.
Daytime talk shows are no different. Phil Donahue was the only one to begin before the '80s and last for several decades. Oprah was on forever, Geraldo's been on in one form or another since the same time, even Maury Povich is still going after 20 years. Sally Jesse Raphael began in the early '80s and hung on for 20 years. Ellen and Rosie O'Donnell came along later and haven't been on for as long, but they were already coasting off of their stand-up / acting brand.
As with the nightly news, the incumbency problem has led to a proliferation of niche late-night and daytime talk shows to accommodate the widening ranks of aspiring talk show hosts.
Siskel and Ebert had a lock on reviewing movies for a TV audience, and were only stopped by death and cancer.
The only constant across all of these cases is the timing of their beginnings — circa the 1980s — and the generations of the incumbents — Silents and Boomers (Greastest Gen were happy to move aside after a brief stint). It doesn't matter if the scale is national or local, if the tone is serious or comic or trashy, if they're men or women, white or black, Jewish or Christian. The me-first / dog-eat-dog norms that have prevailed since the Me Generation of the '70s have ushered in an age of first mover advantage. They shoved the Greatest Gen aside, dug themselves in, and are only leaving due to the complications of old age.
This places them within the broader trend in the economy and government toward incumbency, rising numbers of aspiring elites, and new niches being carved out to give the strivers somewhere to go.
But niches can only grow so narrow and draw such tiny crowds. There are simply too many people aspiring to be a somebody in the world of journalism. When the trend toward status-striving and inequality turns around, we'll see people who don't mind reading the teleprompter or gabbing with the celebs du jour for five years before moving on to something else. And who won't think of their spot as a way to "build their brand" i.e. glorify themselves.