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The Voice of Gibson

3/09/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Long before Charles Gibson treated NBC Nightly News last month to its first sweeps loss since 1996, I wrote in this space that Gibson was the right man to succeed the late Peter Jennings as ABC’s evening anchor. Of course, I also predicted professional rebirths for the CBS-bound Katie Couric and Meredith Vieira, the woman who replaced her on Today.

Well, to quote that late ’70s FM bard Meat Loaf: “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

Just seven months after settling in at World News, Gibson won February sweeps in total viewers and the key 25-54 news demo. Last week, his rivals dramatically acknowledged his success when NBC and CBS, in quick succession, replaced the executive producers of their evening newscasts.

Given that north of $600 million in ad revenue is at stake, who can blame them? But as Alex Wallace prepares to tinker with top-rated Nightly News With Brian Williams and Rick Kaplan attempts to resuscitate the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, they ought to consider why Gibson is in ascent.

As good as Williams is, and much as I had high hopes for Couric, the truth is that Gibson is the best of the three evening anchors.

More than two years after succeeding Tom Brokaw, Williams comes across like he’s got something to prove. And Couric unwisely traded her natural affability for an overly restrained delivery.

Meanwhile, Gibson has succeeded by offering the sort of avuncular “voice-of-God” reassurance that CBS chief Leslie Moonves famously declared obsolete.

What’s more, Couric’s costly, splashy debut last September may have worked in Gibson’s favor. After curious viewers (including habitués of NBC) sampled Couric and moved on, it’s likely that many sampled Gibson, too—and stayed.

A few weeks back, CBS News President Sean McManus told B&C’s Ben Grossman that he saw “no major changes in the near future” with Evening News. Obviously, the last few weeks have changed his mind—or his boss Moonves changed it for him.

While I don’t expect the relatively unproven Wallace to make big changes at Nightly News—where NBC News President Steve Capus will, no doubt, remain hands on—Kaplan will surely be a change agent at CBS.

That’s good news for Couric. Rome Hartman, the outgoing executive producer at Evening News, may have been well-liked in the newsroom. But Kaplan, who has worked with Ted Koppel, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer, has demonstrated a knack for curbing the excesses and getting the best work out of challenging talent like Couric.

Sure, Kaplan’s own ego and ambition have tripped him up in the past. As president of CNN, he shared responsibility for a much-hyped, ultimately specious piece about the U.S. military’s use of nerve gas during the Vietnam War. (In light of that episode, which marred his tenure at CNN, it may be a good thing that his short run at MSNBC was so unremarkable.)

But Kaplan has the chops to redeem himself—and Couric. Already last Thursday’s newscast, Kaplan’s first, was markedly better than usual.

There was, however, one glaring misstep that typifies what’s been wrong with the program since Couric arrived last fall. Reporting on a new study on increases in violent crime, the newscast opted for a heart-rending tale of a father’s murder and its toll on his middle-class family—instead of telling viewers why such crimes may be on the rise.

That much, at least, Kaplan can fix. Whether he can reignite Couric’s fading promise as an evening anchor, that’s another question.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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