Dan Rather's acknowledgment that he erred in broadcasting a recent "60 Minutes'' report about
CBS has never disclosed a timetable for replacing Mr. Rather, who turns 73 next month and who has been the anchor of the nightly news since March 1981. But in the weeks before Sept. 8, when the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes'' broadcast its report based on documents it now says cannot be authenticated, officials atop the network and its news division had begun discussing a transition plan, a network executive said late last week.
The options under consideration include having Mr. Rather step down sometime next spring, perhaps near the end of the prime-time season in May, giving his replacement the relatively low-profile summer months to find his or her bearings, said the executive, who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired at a time of turmoil at CBS News. But no date had been fixed.
Although the networks' evening newscasts have seen their ratings and influence whittled away by the rise of 24-hour cable news channels and the availability of news on the Internet, the anchor chair remains one of the most prestigious posts in television journalism. The two most likely successors to Mr. Rather, at least as handicapped by the network's rank-and-file correspondents and producers, have long been considered to be John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, and Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes.'' Neither is considered to have strong name recognition among viewers, and the network has not ruled out looking beyond its own news division.
Now, however, whatever transition discussions were under way have been upended. Last week CBS commissioned two outsiders to investigate the journalistic breakdowns that resulted in the broadcast not only of the flawed report but of Mr. Rather's early, emphatic assurances that the documents were authentic, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Depending on how damaging the final report is to Mr. Rather, it could hasten his departure - or it could extend his stay at the anchor desk, particularly if the network decides that it cannot make a move until the controversy over the guard report has sufficiently cooled.
"Just dealing with this,'' the CBS executive said of the investigation and its fallout, "takes priority for the next one, two, three months.''
The final decision on Mr. Rather's future is expected to rest with two people: Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, and Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and the co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, the network's parent company. In an interview on Friday, Mr. Heyward declined to answer questions about the most recent conversations surrounding any transfer of the anchor post, other than to say that "there is no timetable in place.''
"We have always said that there would be an orderly transition at an appropriate time,'' Mr. Heyward said, "and any discussions we have had are part of that process.''
A spokeswoman for Mr. Rather, Kim Akhtar, said yesterday that she would refer any questions about his future to Mr. Heyward.
The question of what to do about Mr. Rather - whose broadcast has languished in third place, behind NBC and ABC, for nearly a decade - began to take on greater urgency in recent months, as NBC has prepared to pass the baton of its nightly newscast from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams.
That generational change, which NBC announced more than two years ago and which represents the first shuffling of network anchor chairs in two decades, will happen in December.
The installation of Mr. Williams, 45, a former White House correspondent perhaps best known for anchoring newscasts on NBC's cable networks, is expected to touch off a period of anchor-shopping among viewers.
The audience for all three network newscasts has declined precipitously over the past decade, from an average of 36.3 million viewers between September 1993 and September 1994 to an average of 26.3 million during the same period in 2003 and 2004.
But the broadcasts remain important to their respective networks - not only as marquee showcases for their news divisions but also as profit centers.
"The CBS Evening News'' has drawn an average of 7.4 million viewers over the last 12 months, according to Nielsen Media Research. That is significantly more than even the highest-rated cable channel, Fox News, but less than top-rated NBC's 9.8 million viewers.
All three network newscasts are estimated to bring in $100 million or more in annual advertising revenue.
At CBS's affiliate stations, as well as at those of NBC and ABC, the nightly newscasts also serve as a gateway to evening programming. Bob Lee, chairman of an association of CBS affiliates and president and general manager of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., said that the network's reluctance to broach the transition issue had caused friction with some station owners.
"It's such a sensitive matter, and it just isn't discussed with the affiliates,'' he said. "We are in the dark.''
"When all is said and done, it's a business,'' Mr. Lee said. "In any organization, in any business in which the leadership is aging or the star players are aging, it's irresponsible not to do some planning for the future, as to what to do.''
(The New York Times Company owns four CBS affiliates.)
At 72, Mr. Rather is eight years older than his predecessor, Walter Cronkite, when he stepped down, and eight years older than Mr. Brokaw is now. Mr. Roberts and Mr. Pelley, by contrast, are both 47.
But for all of the negative attention Mr. Rather draws as a lightning rod for conservative ire - especially evident in the last few weeks, as he backpedaled on a story damaging to a sitting Republican president - his most likely successors remain relatively unknown.
Mr. Roberts, who was born in Toronto, first worked as a radio news reporter in Ontario before moving to a local Toronto television station as an anchor and correspondent. In the mid-1980's, he signed on as one of the original hosts of a new video music channel, MuchMusic. He later served as a co-anchor of "Canada A.M.,'' the morning newscast on CTV, before joining CBS News in 1992 as anchor of "The CBS Morning News." He has been the anchor of the Sunday edition of the evening news since March 1995 and chief White House correspondent since August 1999.
Mr. Pelley began his journalism career at 15, as a copy boy at The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in Texas. After 11 years as a reporter and producer at television stations in Lubbock and Dallas, he joined CBS in 1989 as a correspondent and was largely based in Dallas. Like Mr. Roberts, he also served as CBS's chief White House correspondent, before being named a correspondent for "60 Minutes II,'' as it was then known, in June 1999.
Under the terms of Mr. Rather's most recent contract, which expires at the end of 2006, he serves as anchor of the evening news at the network's pleasure. Mr. Heyward said in an interview last year that whether as anchor or not, Mr. Rather was "going to be at CBS News for many years to come,'' most likely in some capacity at "60 Minutes.''
In an interview last fall, Mr. Rather said he intended to serve as anchor only as long as Mr. Heyward believed he should - but that he still considered himself amply qualified for a job that he obviously loves.
"Recognizing I can't be totally objective about it, I say to myself, 'I think I can do the job as good as anybody and maybe better than most,' '' he said.
One longtime colleague of Mr. Rather's said that a date of great meaning to Mr. Rather had long been March 2006, when he would celebrate his 25th anniversary in the anchor chair. The colleague suggested that that date had taken on more significance during the fallout of the last few weeks.
"If I'm him, I want to hang on so I can try to put it back together,'' the colleague said. "He is so, by nature, a fighter. He's a dog with a bone. I just don't see him letting go. He's too proud of what he's accomplished as a journalist.''