January 9, 2014

Who is this man? Many Americans don’t recognize top news anchor

Can you identify today’s top news anchors? For many Americans, matching names with news faces is tougher than it was roughly 30 years ago.

FT_anchor-recognitionIn an online survey about Americans’ knowledge about the news conducted last summer, just 27% of the public could correctly identify Brian Williams, anchor of the top-rated NBC Nightly News. Respondents were shown a picture of Williams and asked to name the person in the photo. While 3% were able to identify Williams’ profession (anchor or reporter), fully seven-in-ten either did not know (53%) or named someone other than Williams (18%). (3 percent thought the photo was of former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and 2% thought it was Vice President Joe Biden.)

Three decades ago, when far more Americans watched the nightly network news programs, nearly half (47%) could identify Dan Rather, who at the time anchored the top-rated CBS evening News. The July 1985 survey, conducted by Times Mirror/Gallup, was administered in person by an interviewer, who showed respondents a card with Rather’s photo. (Face-to-face interviewing for this type of survey was not uncommon at that time.)

FT_anchor-recognition-downThe lower public awareness of news anchors reflects a large decline in the audience for nightly network news since the 1980s. For example, in November 1985 an average of 48 million Americans watched one of the network newscasts each evening. By 2013, that number had fallen to 24.5 million, according to Pew Research analysis of Nielsen Media Research data.

The audience for network news is older today than in the 1980s and this is reflected in how familiar different age groups are with network broadcasters.

While recognition of Williams compared with Rather is lower across all demographic groups, the gap between young and old is now wider today than in 1985. In the August survey, just 15% of those under 30 identified Williams, compared with about three-in-ten in older age groups. In 1985, 41% of young people identified Rather; about half of older people recognized the CBS anchor.

Trends in Network News Viewership

FT_tv-news-trendsTelevision remains the public’s top daily news source, but the audience for network TV news has steadily declined over the years as people have migrated to other places for news; namely cable TV and digital sources. In Pew Research Center news consumption surveys, the share of Americans who say they regularly watch a nightly network news program has declined from 60% in 1993 (the earliest available measure) to just 27% in 2012.

Young people are among the least likely to regularly watch network news: 11% of those 18-29 in 2012, compared with 46% of this age group in 1993. About half (49%) of 18-29 year olds say they never watch.

Older Americans, those 65 and up, are still far more likely to regularly watch network news than younger people, yet their regular viewership has dropped by almost half since 1993, from 75% down to 40% in 2012. According to Nielsen Media Research, the share of the public from the media’s highly coveted 25-54 year old demographic that watched NBC, ABC or CBS network news accounted for only 26% of all viewers in the 2012-13 ratings season. The vast majority of viewers were older Americans; a trend that is expected to continue.

Note: The question about Brian Williams was asked as part of the most recent Pew Research knowledge survey. But the open-ended nature of the question did not allow us to include it in the accompanying News IQ Quiz which relies on multiple choice questions.

See questionnaire results here. Other questions from this survey previously released.

Topics: News Sources

  1. Photo of Rob Suls

    is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mike4 years ago

    Starting with a positive, I greatly enjoy Pew Research Reports. This on though I feel isn’t quite accurate cuz’ it’s really an apples and oranges comparison – 30 years ago we didn’t have cable news…hence there was more main network recognition. I believe viewership today is more towards the cable news, 24 / 7, etc. Keep up the good work Pew staffers…….. Thank you

  2. B. Frank Harris4 years ago

    The most recent results shown
    for awareness is disappointing
    but not surprising. Just watch
    some if Jay Leno’s “Jay on the
    Street (or Sidewalk)” interviews
    for validation of this survey’s

  3. Henry Thoreau4 years ago

    Why would I go to the government to get news on the government? I’ve had enough of the 5th column called the MSM. Sorry.

  4. carleton cronin4 years ago

    The “national news half hours” are doomed by the presence of so many other sources of daily happenings. The weight of the anchors is far less than when such well-known “father figures” as Lowell Thomas and Walter Cronkite or “authoritative voices” such as Edward R. Murrow held sway. Todays news anchors just do not have the necessary “punch” of the old-timers – and, todays viewers have different expectations from TV.

  5. Kay Brown4 years ago

    If you want to know what is happening in the world you don’t get your “news” from American sources.

  6. slk4 years ago

    there’s a reason why most of the media is liberal/socialist, and yet the population isn’t!!! do your homework!!!

  7. Buff4 years ago

    I believe it’s due to the distrust in the news media, and there bias reporting. We trust them as much as we trust Congress.

  8. Robert Hill4 years ago

    This clearly shoes a trend for people to get their news from the internet. This has big benefits in terms of reducing the “spin” by major networks and increasing the effectiveness of social networking. More people are wanting to get unbiased information and then interpreting it for themselves, rather than from corporate bosses.

    1. Donovan4 years ago

      There is more spin available on the web than on the networks. Too many people tend to rely on the internet to reinforce their personal biases/reality, its quicker and a more reliable method of reassuring yourself.

  9. C. Anderson4 years ago

    Think about it, here’s a guy that’s in front of the public up to 20 hours a month, not to mention special events and the youth of Amercia have no clue as to his identity. How in the world do they have a clue on political issues affecting the country. Yet they made a significant difference in the election of Obama.

  10. Bob A4 years ago

    One good reason not to watch any TV, especially news programs, is TV is overloaded with excessive advertising amidst dumbed down programing. TV killed its own goose that laid the Golden Egg. As Khrushchev said, given enough time (paraphrasing), the capitalists will sell the rope by which they will hang themselves. The extreme and growing gap between the obscene rich and the growing poor is another example of capitalism’s excesses gone wild.

    I have no political agenda, I speak as a lifelong political independent.

    1. slk4 years ago

      and how’s the soviets doing???

  11. Miss Cellania4 years ago

    Brian Williams is still an anchor after all these years? I’d recognize him anywhere. But I’d still recognize Walter Kronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, too.

  12. Jeanne4 years ago

    “Coming up!” is why people prefer their news from the internet. Who has that much time to wait? Just give me the news…NOW!

  13. John P4 years ago

    Nightly News is now the nightly White House propaganda , it’s talking points , personal attacks and lies. They don’t even give reeivent news. I stopped watching the communist run media when I got my first computer. Cable is no better. Soon the media whores will be ALL gone for good and the sooner the better.

    1. Pete4 years ago

      “the communist run (sic) media…”? Jeeze! I thought the John Birch Society (founded by the father of the evil Koch brothers) had died our, to the betterment of the world. Guess I was wrong.

      1. Burt4 years ago

        Blah, blah, blah. Everyone wants you to step into their pile!! Fortunatly we will all make up our own minds – according to our mental ability..or not!!