Katie Couric's ascent to CBS Evening News anchor was to be the triumphant chapter in a storied career as one of the giants of morning television. But her transition from the comfortable confines of morning TV, where her pert interview style could flourish, to the straitjacket of the evening news, will end unceremoniously, possibly soon after the election.
Couric and network executives are now brainstorming an exit strategy for the $15 million anchor who failed to lift the CBS Evening News out of third place. Publicly, CBS is standing behind its grand strategy for the star. “We are very proud of the CBS Evening News, particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast,” the network said in a statement. (The statement is technically correct, said one CBS News executive—there is no “plan” in place.)
Now the media spotlight that focused on Couric's debut as the first solo female evening news anchor has become more intense as speculation over her future—and the newscast's—mounts.
Theories abound on who would replace Couric. Possibilities include The Early Show's Harry Smith; Bob Schieffer, who bridged the Dan Rather and Couric eras and could be temporarily pressed into service again; and CNN's Anderson Cooper.
If Couric stays at CBS—she's a year and half into a five-year, $75 million deal—she could end up with a full-time post at 60 Minutes, a idea she has stoked, given her frustration with the constraints of the evening news format and her admiration of the newsmagazine show. “It's really hard to show that side of my personality on the evening news, and that's a frustration for me,” she told the Washington Post.
If Couric took a role at 60 Minutes, home to some notoriously sharp-elbowed correspondents, it's unclear how CBS News could justify shifting Couric's outsize salary to the 60 Minutes budget, where the highest-paid correspondent makes a third of what Couric is currently pulling in.
A syndicated talk show gig was dismissed by people close to Couric. To be sure, trading the grind of a nightly newscast for the grind of a daily talk show at a time when the genre is lagging would not seem to be a gamble Couric would want to take at this point. (Countless others have tried and failed, including Jane Pauley, one of Couric's Today show predecessors.)
And Couric is only the latest news personality to be mentioned as a successor to Larry King. ABC's Diane Sawyer and Rosie O'Donnell have also been floated as heirs apparent to the suspendered King, whose contract with CNN expires next year.
But Larry King Live is CNN's top-rated show. And King, 74, has made no secret of his desire to keep working. “If they want me, I'd stay,” said King last year. “I have no inclination to retire.”
Couric's debut in September 2006 was preceded by weeks of unrelenting—some say unfair—media attention. She embarked on a “listening tour” to ask viewers what they wanted in the 6 o'clock news, engendering a raft of sarcastic media coverage. CBS News spent dearly on promotion and worked to spiff up its threadbare image. Couric's air-brushed visage graced buses and billboards. A new multimillion-dollar set was created and theme music ordered up from Academy Award-winning composer James Horner.
The broadcast was remade to suit Couric's chatty style. Visibly nervous, the nation's first solo female nightly news anchor opened her broadcast on September 5, 2006, with a chirpy: “Hi everyone!” (The greeting has since been toned down to a more somber, “Hello, everyone.”) Couric even came out from behind her acreage of desk to lean on the front of it. There was the widely pilloried “free speech” segment in which famous personages were invited to channel 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney. Couric asked viewers to help her pick a closing salutation; the plan was later abandoned.
CBS banked that Couric's star wattage, stoked by 15 years on NBC's Today and a re-imagined evening news playing to her strengths, would bring new viewers to the evening news. But it didn't.
After an inaugural audience of more than 13 million viewers and two weeks of juiced ratings, the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric fell back to No. 3 and has since twice bottomed out at around 5.5 million viewers in May and September 2007. This season, the show is averaging 6.7 million viewers, well behind NBC's Nightly News With Brian Williams (9 million) and ABC's World News With Charles Gibson (8.8 million).
Six months after launching, executive producer Rome Hartman was removed in favor of Rick Kaplan, longtime producer of World News Tonight With Peter Jennings. The newscast was revamped as a traditional hard-news broadcast, but many inside CBS News believe the damage was done, and overcoming early negative perceptions from viewers has so far proved elusive.
“There is this sense that she doesn't have the credibility of a real hard-news reporter,” says Elizabeth Mehren, professor of journalism at Boston University and a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
Couric received mixed reviews and the broadcast's lowest ratings in 20 years when she traveled to Iraq in September in a closely guarded mission. The trip was seen by some media pundits as an attempt to burnish her hard-news credentials.
“She wants to be Walter Cronkite in a dress,” Mehren adds. “Well, she's not Walter Cronkite in a dress. And I'm not even sure Walter Cronkite could be Walter Cronkite right now. We're more cynical. Our expectations are very different now.”
Since then, there have been other setbacks, most notably CBS News' failure to secure a debate in a primary season bursting with them. A planned Democratic debate in December in Los Angeles was scuttled due to threats of WGA picket lines. People close to Couric say she was extremely frustrated with the situation. CBS News has plans for an April 27 debate in North Carolina to be moderated by Couric and Schieffer, but as of presstime the network had only confirmed Clinton's participation.
Pinning the fortunes of the broadcast on the chummy popularity of its anchor was an antiquated strategy from the beginning. “It's a Roone Arledge 1980s solution to a 21st century problem,” says media analyst Andrew Tyndall, referring to the late ABC News legend who built the network's news division around a stable of extravagantly paid stars, believing their hefty salaries fostered a glamorous superstar image. “It's a broadcaster's solution to a new media problem.”
DEATH OF TRADITIONAL TV NEWS?
Despite the clamor over Couric, CBS's decline is more a reflection of the larger defection in traditional media. Broadcast news divisions have seen their budgets contract in line with their falling ratings. In 1998, more than 30 million people watched the three evening newscasts, according to Nielsen Media Research. That number has steadily declined to its current level of 24 million.
The migration of viewers to cable news and the Internet has left those broadcast divisions without a cable partnership—CBS and ABC—vulnerable with no avenue to amortize costs and maximize content.
The recent resurfacing of merger talks between CBS News and CNN (CNN and ABC News executives had the same talks in 2002) underscores the financial reality facing broadcast news. Less than two weeks ago, CBS laid off nearly 200 people at affiliates across the country. In Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, popular veteran on-air personalities pulling down big salaries were unceremoniously shown the door. The implication was clear: Their value to their respective broadcasts did not justify their salaries in an era of painful belt-tightening. CBS News laid off a little more than 1% of its workforce, with multiple positions eliminated through attrition. The news division does not anticipate any more cuts.
Time-starved consumers are no longer spending a half-hour in front of their TV sets at 6:30 p.m. Today, news, like most media content, is increasingly consumed via the on-demand model, cherry picked from Websites or consumed on the fly on cable networks. Does it matter who fronts a three-minute segment downloaded to a cellphone?
That's not to say that television news of the future will be devoid of stars. But opinionated pundits such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann clearly occupy a finite niche. Presiding over a 22-minute overview of the day's events is a dispassionate endeavor. And in the on-demand news model of the future, the anchor becomes less significant.
“The job of these three anchors [Couric, Williams and Gibson] is not to ruin the franchise that exists before the new order is in place,” Tyndall says. “But they're not there to resuscitate the franchise because that cannot be done.”