Couric’s Gap: Who Knows Why Katie Isn’t Connecting?

Originally posted: September 12, 2009

DePauw University Prof. Jeff McCall

Greencastle, Ind. – Katie Couric was the darling of television journalism three years ago this month when she assumed the anchor desk of the legendary “CBS Evening News.” She was selected to rescue CBS News after the disintegration and awkward departure of Dan Rather.

Couric was thought to be a can’t-miss in the anchor chair, coming off many years of ratings success doing NBC’s “Today.” Her arrival at CBS was promoted, hyped and overhyped. Now, three years into a five-year contract paying $15 million a year, even the most ardent Katie backers at CBS must be wondering if she can make it.

Couric’s ratings continue to lag, despite three years of format tweaks, producer changes, set renovations, logo changes and public statements of support from CBS brass. Couric enjoyed about 10 million viewers a night early in her anchor tenure and then faced a steady drop in viewership.

She had a temporary uptick last fall during and immediately after election season. Another slide since then has her program sometimes barely getting 5 million viewers a night, more than 2 million behind ABC and NBC.

Diane Sawyer’s upcoming move to the anchor chair of ABC’s “World News” makes Couric’s challenge more difficult. The novelty of being the only female major network anchor will be gone, and whatever audience there is dedicated to watching a female anchor will be divided.

The CBS network umbrella has provided every opportunity for Couric’s success. CBS primetime programming has been a ratings powerhouse in recent years. Couric has been trumpeted during prime-time shows, the highly rated NCAA basketball broadcasts and NFL games, including the 2007 Super Bowl. Even the attention given CBS by Walter Cronkite’s death failed to spark audience interest for the Couric broadcast.

None of this is to say that Couric isn’t a bright and talented broadcaster; she is. The Radio Television News Directors Association has named Couric’s broadcast the best evening newscast two years in a row. Her success on NBC’s “Today” speaks for itself, but that audience apparently didn’t follow her to evenings.

Predicting success for news anchors is not an exact science, so it is hard to know precisely why Couric isn’t working out as an evening anchor. Peter Jennings, for example, was a bust as ABC’s anchor when he first took the role in the late 1960s. He then left anchoring and spent many years as a foreign correspondent. He later reassumed the anchor role and prospered.

Audiences develop parasocial interactions with news anchors, and they want anchors who are credible journalists, have likable personalities and appear to be hardworking. Couric seems to be all of that, but viewers haven’t connected.

A recent Rasmussen Reports study indicates that 38 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Couric, 10 points worse than her competitors, Charles Gibson at ABC and Brian Williams at NBC. The Rasmussen study shows 39 percent of those polled identify Couric as liberal, compared to 25 percent for Williams and 26 percent for Gibson.

It is worth noting that network news ratings overall are in decline. People can get news from other sources and at other times than at 6:30 p.m. Competition from cable “Baier’s Special Report” on Fox News Channel has seen audience growth of 28 percent, now reaching more than 2 million viewers each night.

Michael Jordan was a great athlete who had a remarkable basketball career, but he flopped when he quit basketball to pursue pro baseball. Greatness in one venue doesn’t guarantee it in a different context. So it seems with Katie Couric. She did great in a chatty morning news format, but her skill set hasn’t transferred to the evening anchor desk.

Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.”

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