Anchor Couric’s Ship Isn’t Sunk Yet

Originally posted: December 18, 2006

Mid-December marks the end of Katie Couric’s first 100 days as anchor of the CBS Evening News. The broadcast premiered in September with great fanfare and ratings wins over NBC and ABC. The ratings quickly settled back to pre-Couric levels and stayed there, a distant third place.

CBS executives wonder why the $15 million-a-year star of morning interviews attracts such weak ratings in the early evening news slot. After all, Couric enjoyed a glorious start and had all the promotion, sets and staging money could buy. CBS got an Academy Award-winning composer to create theme music just for Couric. They even got CBS legend Walter Cronkite to voice the show’s intro.

After the November ratings sweeps, Couric trails NBC’s first-place Brian Williams by almost 2 million viewers per night. Couric even finishes fourth in some markets, behind independent stations running sitcom reruns. CBS has a ratings lead with its prime time entertainment, but that is not enough to prop up the evening news.

CBS leaders are declaring their delight with Couric’s show to date, but have acknowledged in published interviews that tweaking is under way. One thing is sure — they shouldn’t blame Katie.

Couric is delivering just what CBS management thought it wanted — a personality in a news anchor chair. The show is all about Katie. CBS expects her to be all things in every show: deadly serious and somber at times, and smiley (dare we say “perky?”) at others. She’s a news reader one moment and an interviewer the next, complete with double-fisted hand gestures.

The broadcast’s approach sounds journalistic at times, but often strays into strained hype and personality. The term “exclusive” shows up in many newscasts. Couric introduced one story saying, “I really think this next story is going to knock your socks off,” and wrapped up another with, “I just love that story.” When Couric’s broadcast originated from Jordan in November to cover the president’s visit, the location was indicated nearly 20 times.

CBS’ problem is that the viewers of early evening news are more interested in news than personalities. Sure, the likeability of the anchor is important, but if personality alone made a news show, Regis and Kelly would be news anchors.

CBS wants to play to Couric’s experience as an interviewer, but that is harder to accomplish in a half-hour format than on a three-hour morning show. The interview process also opens the door for Couric’s questions to come off as mini-commentaries. In a recent interview with Britain’s Tony Blair, Couric asked, “Do you regret your unwavering support of this president?’ Translation: you should. To Condoleeza Rice at the Jordan summit, “Will this summit really change anything?’ Translation: it won’t.

Couric recently began a new interview segment for her newscast, harking back to CBS’ legendary Edward R. Murrow and even using the “Person to Person” label Murrow used for his program. The historians at CBS must have forgotten to tell Couric that Murrow’s “Person to Person” was designed as an entertainment show for prime time, and that Murrow was roundly criticized then for selling out his journalistic reputation to lob softball celebrity interview questions.

Couric is a talented and capable broadcaster who surely has the potential to turn her ratings fortunes around. To do that, she will need to redefine herself from personality to broadcast journalist. CBS will have to provide a solid news program that Couric anchors, rather than hoping for viewers to tune in to watch Katie the personality, who just happens to have some news for us.

Jeff McCall is a frequently quoted expert on media matters and has been cited recently in Multichannel News, the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor, and Inside Higher Ed and has appeared six times on FOX News’ O’Reilly Factor. Read about his most recent op-ed, on an award presented to Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, in this previous article.

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