WASHINGTON – National TV newscasts have tried just about every kind of anchor configuration over the past six decades: A lone male anchor. A lone female. Two men. A man and a woman. Even three men.
But two women? Perish the thought. No national evening broadcast has ever dared put a pair of women on air together to read the news each day. Apparently, as a character in the 2004 satire of 1970s culture “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” put it: “It’s anchorman, not anchorlady! And that is a scientific fact.”
Starting with its broadcast Monday, the “PBS NewsHour” is featuring two women in the anchor chairs. The program – anchored for years by founding fathers Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer and lately by a series of rotating anchors – is being co-anchored by Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.
The new era at “NewsHour” started Monday with a big “get”: Ifill interviewed President Obama as part of his media interviews to build support for a U.S. military strike against Syria.
Woodruff and Ifill have anchored “NewsHour” before, alone or in combination with each other. Still, their installation as regular co-anchors is a small cultural milestone for American TV news.
Such a pairing is “a no-brainer,” given the duo’s experience and familiarity to “NewsHour” viewers, Woodruff said. “If you have two people on your team who really click, what difference does it really make” if they happen to be women?
Nevertheless, Woodruff, 66, acknowledges the symbolic import of the moment. Coming in with the first wave of female TV reporters and anchors in the early 1970s, she recalls looking for her first job and being brushed off by news directors with some variation of “We don’t believe a woman’s voice is authoritative.”
Ifill, 57, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter, was a later arrival to TV, starting with NBC News in the mid-1990s and moving to public television as host of PBS’ “Washington Week” in 1999. She notes the “first” of her partnership with Woodruff, but plays down its significance. “We’re moving on the assumption that people want to see us, and the woman thing doesn’t help or hurt,” she said. Viewers “know us, and know what they’re getting.”
Focus-group research into anchor combinations indicates that viewers look for “a balance of power” among anchor teams, said Craig Allen, an associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. This balance, he notes, has been most easy to achieve with a male-female combination, mimicking the traditional mom-dad/boy-girl dynamic.
Ifill has her own take on the subject. Asked why it took so long for two women to attain the most visible spots on a news broadcast, she replied: “Because men rule the world. I’ve never worked at a place where the people who rose didn’t look like the people in power.” Now, she said, “we’ve slogged away for so long, it just seemed to make sense.”