By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Fifty years ago, TV network news anchors such as Walter Cronkite were the trusted, familiar faces watched by millions of Americans who tuned in every night to watch them deliver the news with authority.
Now, in an era of news delivered around the clock on the Internet, cable television and social media, the celebrity TV news anchor appears to be a dying breed.
NBC may have driven the final nail in the coffin on Thursday. The network removed Brian Williams from its "Nightly News" after heavy criticism that he made up a story.
NBC found that Williams, 56, fabricated being on board a helicopter when it was attacked in Iraq during the first days of the Iraq war in 2003.
"The Brian Williams story really poisoned the waters of the celebrity anchor person," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture.
"No one now wants to pull the big stunt, get the biggest person you can get, because that's exactly what got the U.S. networks in trouble in the first place."
Williams will return to television on NBC's cable channel MSNBC in August. Both are units of Comcast Corp.
Known as much for his genial persona as for his journalism, he has been the face of NBC News since 2004. He not only delivered the news, but also appeared on talk shows and in magazines to promote the network.
"Broadcast news has always been about getting the best anchor ... the one with the greatest charismatic appeal, personality and visibility " said Craig Allen, professor at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
But with morning television now the big money-spinner for the U.S. networks, the large personalities and huge salaries earned by evening news anchors have become an anachronism, according to Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report which monitors U.S. television network news.
"One by one the broadcast networks are resolving that anomaly by making the role of the nightly news anchor more generic and less personal," he said.
THE KATIE COURIC GAMBLE
Williams helped make NBC's "Nightly News" the most watched evening newscast in the United States.
Audiences have slipped since his suspension in February and ABC's "World News Tonight" is challenging NBC for the biggest audience, according to Nielsen data.
Hiring a celebrity journalist has not always paid off for a network. Tyndall recalled that in 2006, when CBS was third place in the evening news ratings, the network "gambled" on hiring NBC celebrity news journalist Katie Couric. But he said she had "no impact" on boosting viewership by the time she left in 2011.
He also noted that CBS had returned to its hard-news roots since the failed Couric experiment. "Since they went back to being more like a hard newscast, they have started to narrow the gap," he said.
ABC's flagship evening news broadcast, anchored by the more low-key David Muir, is currently tied with NBC in ratings, drawing about 8.5 million total viewers each night. CBS' "Evening News," anchored by war reporter Scott Pelley, gets about 6.5 million viewers.
Even without celebrity anchors, some experts see a bright future for network news precisely because of the constant, around-the-clock information flooding into American homes and personal devices.
Although audiences for network news have declined dramatically in the past 30 years, Thompson noted more people watch them than all the primetime cable news channels put together. Tyndall agreed.
"For people who are not news junkies and don't want to watch their Facebook feeds 24/7 but just want to check in for half an hour for the top headlines, the networks are doing the work for you," said Tyndall.
"Broadcast networks are still in great shape, because they have the expertise, the experience and the resources. They don't need celebrity."
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by David Gregorio)