2006-09-14 / This Week's Attitude

This Week's Attitude

Katie's The Apple Of CBS' Eye - For Now
By Neil S. Friedman


She smiled, she read and, in less than thirty minutes, she conquered. But less than a week after her much over-hyped, ballyhooed CBS Evening News debut, the shine on the apple of the CBS eye had faded.

It wasn't an earthshaking event, but in our celebrity-driven culture it was certainly the biggest story - on a slow news day - last week when Katie Couric made broadcast journalism history as the first solo female anchor of an evening network news show.

Massive, expensive marketing campaign notwithstanding, Couric was not exactly a trailblazer at the anchor desk since Barbara Walters and a few others preceded her at the coveted evening anchor slot with male counterparts for decades. And, while it was a network milestone, solo female anchors have frequented cable news shows for years. Nevertheless, Couric's first night on the evening news was one of the most anticipated debuts of the new television season. "CBS Evening News" had gone through some rough waters in recent years that led to the untimely resignation of 24-year anchor Dan Rather under a suspicious ethical cloud about eighteen months ago.

The debut was particularly newsworthy since it propelled the traditional third-place evening newscast to the top spot ahead of NBC and ABC, but by Friday her audience had dipped by almost half. And by Monday, the biggest news day of her brief tenure due to 9/11 anniversary coverage, CBS was back in its perennial third place slot. Through Friday, Couric averaged about 10 million viewers - to maintain the top spot - largely due to the 13.6 million viewers for her September 5 debut. However, by her fifth show on Monday that audience had shrunk by about 45 percent, ranking CBS behind NBC Nightly News and ABC World News.

Her predecessor, veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, actually increased the network's news ratings during his brief post-Rather tenure and Couric is expected to - at least -maintain that modest gain.

Couric tried a few new segments, including a "Free Speech" feature and a piece called "Snapshots," that was better suited for newsmagazine shows, like the network's own popular "Sunday Morning." An extended piece on the resurgence of Al Qaeda was interesting and informative, but its extended length was rare for a 22-minute evening newscast - sans commercials - and likely disqualified some hard new stories from airing, which, in retrospect, validated that it was, after all, a slow news day. However, on subsequent days, precious airtime was filled with features and commentaries at the expense of a few significant stories that her competitors featured.

The show hit bottom on opening night when Couric presented an item and photograph about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' newborn, which was nothing more than a plug for the latest issue of Vanity Fair magazine that features the exclusive first photos of Baby Suri that every tabloid outlet has been craving all summer. That sort of piece is more apropos for "Entertainment Tonight" or "Today," unless Couric, who is the show's managing editor, plans to soften the program's hard news elements, which would be a mistake.

After showing a montage of memorable news anchor sign-offs, from icons like Walter Cronkite and Huntley & Brinkley, Couric asked viewers to submit suggestions, which seemed like a blatant ploy to make the audience feel it was involved. When she finally comes up with a signature sign-off, you can bet it won't be the result of input from your average viewer.

Her overall demeanor for the half hour was less lively than what she became known for on "Today." But, when introducing a report on Al Qaeda terrorists, grim is obviously more appropriate than perky.

During her 15-years at "Today," Couric's noteworthy news background, which included stints as NBC's Pentagon correspondent and Gulf War reporting, was obscured in the generally light news morning format, though she did cover numerous breaking news stories - from the Columbine High School massacres in Colorado to Princess Diana's funeral to 9/11/01 - and conducted compelling interviews with several world leaders. Couric has won numerous accolades since her career began at ABC News in Washington DC in 1979, including six Emmy and the prestigious Society of Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi Award.

Her influence at "Today" became prominent after she lost her husband to colon cancer in 1998 and Couric became actively and financially involved in various causes to fight the disease. Two years later she had an on-air colonoscopy that is credited with an ensuing 20 percent increase in colon exams nationwide. She was also awarded the esteemed George Foster Peabody Award for her acclaimed series on the disease.

Her superiors, not to mention shareholders in the corporation's stock, can only hope despite the dip in numbers after five shows, Couric has a similar impact on the CBS Evening News. However, that probably won't be completely realized until the winter ratings period, five months from now.

Despite Katie Couric's warmth and charisma, it's highly improbable that the 49-year-old newscaster has the allure to bring the 18-25 demographic back to the evening news fold, which they have ignored in droves, preferring instead to seek news on various hand-held devices and countless blather from blogs on the Internet. But, if she can tap into the advertiser-targeted 25-54 evening news audience and increase advertising revenues, the money invested in her will be worth the steep price.

Only time will tell if the veteran co-host for NBC's "Today" show can attract enough viewers to propel the perennial third-rated network news show ahead of the competition. Nonetheless, as the numbers for her first week demonstrated, the curiosity factor has certainly worn off as some viewers may have realized that while Couric marginally broke new ground for female anchors, she offers little more than her male counterparts - except more fashionable outfits and more leg.

Who knows, the corporate name might even be changed to the Couric Broadcasting System, if Katie Couric eventually emerges as the apple of the CBS eye.

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