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The Death of Walter Cronkite & Soap Operas


Legendary CBS News reporter and anchorman Walter Cronkite passed away on Friday, July 17 at 92 years old. If you are wondering why Cronkite's passing merits mention on a site dedicated to daytime soap operas, the connection will become abundandtly clear.

The first is a footnote to one of the most shattering events in modern American history: at 12:40PM Central Standard Time on Friday, November 22, 1963, Cronkite interrupted the top-rated As the World Turns — with a then-regular daily viewership of 12 million viewers — to be the first to officially break the stunning news to the nation that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. It would be a few short minutes later at 1PM  that Cronkite would announce that Kennedy was dead.

The second reason is something much more mundane but still incredibly important. If you are of a certain age or your parents, grandparents or other loved ones in your home claimed the CBS soaps as "your stories" from the early 1960's through the early 1980's, it is almost a given that The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite at some point in time brought the daytime broadcast day to a close at what was then called "the dinner hour."

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Decades before Oprah fed huge chunks of her viewers to local ABC affiliates, the advent of talk and court shows, or News at Three-Four-Five dominated late afternoon programming in many markets, daytime audiences basically began their day with game shows, continued from midday through the afternoon with serials, and then ended it with a few more game shows and, at last, the evening news.

Back then, daytime soaps were so numerous, highly-rated and profitable for the networks that they literally paid for the money-losing news divisions at ABC, NBC, and CBS. Soaps largely sustained The Big Three's news operations until the 1980's when a series of mergers, corporate buyouts, and executive decisions basically cut the (largely financial) cord that linked daytime soaps to the news divisions. It was shortly after this point that soaps came under the kinds of increasingly intense demograhics and ratings obsessed pressures from which they had been largely exempt until that point. I would argue that these changes and pressures — not only at CBS but also NBC and ABC during that time — were the historic beginnings of what has contributed more than any others to what has pushed soaps near the point of extinction they face today.

News divisions were also major victims of these decisions and pressures, CBS News in particular. Lawrence Tisch — CBS's CEO from 1986 to 1995  — virtually decimated the networks' news division by closing down dozens of national and international bureaus and he instituted draconian across the board budget cuts. Cronkite might have been the highest profile casualty. Though the anchor was already at CBS' mandatory retirement age of 65, it was widely believed that he was pushed aside for young, dashing Dan Rather, the beloved veteran replaced by the young hot shot in pursuit of younger demographics and higher ratings. As a direct result, The CBS Evening News plummeted to third place and has yet to recover. Does any of this sound familiar?

Cronkite was a towering figure of calm, steady, and reliable composure who delivered the days' news without the sensationalism and theatricality that dominates what passes as "journalism" today. He matters not just to television news and journalism, but in his own way to daytime dramas.

Mr. Cronkite will be missed and that's the way it is...