A version of this column appeared on Jonathan Storm's blog "Eye of the Storm" at http://www.philly.com/eyeofthestorm.
It was so low-key, even a whale couldn't hear it.
The inaugural episode Monday of The CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley registered lower on the Richter scale than the little earthquake that hit Philadelphia recently. At least the 1.7 temblor excited a few close neighbors.
In the first episode, there was nary a whisper that this was a new man in the driver's seat. Reports were that Pelley didn't want his name in the title, but the network insisted.
CBS is always throwing the Walter Cronkite legacy around, though he left the news show 30 years ago, and the network has never caught up. His authoritative voice introduced the Katie Couric version of the show, which ran for five years before closing down last month. Now, network publicists are pushing the map that hangs behind Pelley on the set. Meet the new map, same as the old map, a replica of Cronkite's.
Like Cronkite, Pelley is avuncular, but his voice and demeanor are more soothing, almost robotic, than authoritative, and his first show suffered some of the same problems that plagued Couric. A lot of human interest. Not too much excitement.
Bookended by military features, the show didn't get to new facts - five Americans killed in Iraq - until about five minutes in. The lead story was an on-the-scene piece with Fox Company (an unfortunate coincidence), stationed on the Afghanistan border and trying to keep bad guys from sneaking into the war from Pakistan. It would have been a good closer.
There was a news feature on the latest progress in fighting cancer, zeroing in, as CBS does more than NBC or ABC, on an individual story: the man who beat lung cancer. Health is a big deal on all the evening news shows, with their aging audiences and heavy reliance on ads for geriatric medicine. Another long feature focused on a family construction company that was being decimated by the housing crisis.
New York Rep. Anthony Weiner got a few seconds to say how deeply chagrined he was to get caught sending a lewd photo to a woman over Twitter. "Help us understand why Congressman Weiner matters," Pelley asked the reporter on the story. Earlier he had asked national security correspondent David Martin to "remind us" how many troops were still in Iraq. No star-seeking here, just one of us.
Couric consistently finished last in the ratings, in part because her personality didn't jibe with the evening news audience. But it was her frequently lackluster report, filled with the same kind of emphasis on personal stories, that turned a lot of viewers away. The examples Monday at least were illustrative of trends, unlike so many of the crime stories that characterized The Evening News during Couric's tenure.
Pelley's final piece Monday night, about a D-Day paratrooper who was afraid of heights, would have been the perfect capstone, honoring a hero, remarking an anniversary, on a newsier show. Instead, the show diminished Ted Morgan's World War II accomplishments, just another feature behind the more mundane travails of ordinary people in 2011.