NEW YORK – As Scott Pelley marks his first year as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," he's got his eye on the top of the mountain.
"I've got a lot of confidence that we're going to bring this broadcast to No. 1," said Pelley, whose first evening newscast was June 6, 2011.
That would definitely be an achievement for CBS News, where the division's signature broadcast has been a consistent third behind NBC and ABC dating back to the late 1990s — through anchors Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer, Katie Couric and now Pelley.
He still has a way to go, but the trend line is positive. His newscast has averaged 6.03 million viewers a night during the past year, up from 5.72 million for the previous year, according to the Nielsen Co. Ratings leader Brian Williams at NBC's "Nightly News" has seen his average audience slip from 8.65 million to 8.49 million in the same period. ABC's "World News," anchored by Diane Sawyer, went from 7.68 million to 7.53 million.
During a light month for news in May, all three networks saw their ratings drop compared to May 2011. While CBS lost an average of 121,000 viewers from last May, NBC lost 1.07 million and ABC 737,000, Nielsen said.
Last week CBS came within 44,000 viewers of ABC among the 25-to-54-year-old demographic, the basis for many ad sales for newscasts, and tied in the household ratings for that category.
Pelley said his first priority was to set a new tone for the newscast, wanting it to be a place where a viewer could tune in and feel connected to the most important stories in the world each day. It has concentrated heavily on jobs and the economy and now the European economic crisis, said Patricia Shevlin, the broadcast's executive producer. One example this week was a story by reporter Clarissa Ward on economic problems in Spain.
Pelley said he believes the broadcast has improved in all facets and tapped into a reservoir of talent at CBS News.
"These folks needed a little bit of direction," Pelley said. "They needed to know where we were headed, and once we communicated that to them, they have performed magnificently."
Under Pelley, the "CBS Evening News" has a more traditionalist view of "hard news" than its two rivals, said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant whose website monitors the content of network evening newscasts. Viewers are slowly starting to notice, he said.
"He's absolutely exceeded expectations in terms of recovering that franchise," Tyndall said. "He made it a distinctive newscast, he made it a critical success and he's gotten awards for it. And that's the way you have to do it. You can't do it the other way around."
CBS News won a Peabody Award this spring for its reporting on Syria, primarily on the evening news.
Shevlin shares Pelley's confidence in further ratings success. "I think we're going to be No. 1," she said, though neither offered a prediction when that might happen.
CBS has tried a similar turn to harder news with its morning show, though it has yet to see a ratings increase there to match the evening show. Its morning news show has dropped 7 percent in viewership compared to last year, the same percentage as ratings leader "Today" at NBC. Viewership has increased at ABC's "Good Morning America," Nielsen said.
Pelley said his broadcast's approach is being noticed in high places, recalling an interview he conducted last year with Vice President Joe Biden.
When the interview was done, Pelley said, Biden leaned in and said, "I see what you guys are doing. You're trying to be the broadcast that covers the news."
Pelley said he thanked him and Biden laughed. "We'll see if there's a market for that," he said.
"The next time I see him, I'm going to say, 'Mr. Vice President, it turns out there is.'" Pelley said.