Empty Promises


At last month’s Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves shared his philosophy on the best way to promote his company: “under-promise and over-deliver.” A sound strategy—and one that his company’s news division unfortunately failed to heed with the carnivalesque launch of the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.

After a splashy, multimillion-dollar media campaign that sent Couric on a much ballyhooed nationwide “listening tour” and put her face on the front of every bus in New York City, some 13.6 million curious viewers sampled her maiden newscast Sept. 5.

But Evening News has been trending down ever since, falling back into third place in the key 25-54 age group, where ratings leader NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams is virtually tied with ABC World News With Charles Gibson.

Predictably, CBS News is spinning hard, pointing to the newscast’s increased viewership over last year versus the fall-off at NBC and ABC. But Couric’s inability to get more of those early samplers to come back—along with tales of tension in the newsroom—has to be making the CBS brass a tad nervous.

Of course, they might have considered that before giving a Broadway opening to a show that ought to have been workshopping the kinks in out-of-town tryouts.

The plain fact is that Couric’s overhaul has dismantled an extremely savvy—and successful—structure that coalesced under her predecessor, interim anchor Bob Scheiffer.

Then, the emphasis was on the news division’s A-team correspondents, from the opening segment to the closing piece, with Scheiffer as the commanding officer debriefing his soldiers in the field.

Now the emphasis is on features that eat into the news well and often fall flat—most glaringly, the much hyped yet seldom compelling “freeSpeech” commentary.

And for a former morning anchor looking to shed her reputation for fluff, Couric ought to reconsider the warm fuzzies. Evening News recently did two—two—animal segments in one week: a Richard Schlesinger report about a Marine colonel who smuggled a puppy back from war-torn Baghdad, and a Steve Hartman story about a Utah animal shelter helping pets from war-torn Beirut. Come on!

Meanwhile, Couric’s competitors are playing to their strengths. When Charlie Gibson went to Pennsylvania to report on the Amish-school shootings, Couric was conspicuously absent from the scene.

Given the media scrutiny she has been under, one could imagine Couric second-guessing her instincts and deciding not to make the trip out of fear that she would appear to be exploiting the tragedy. But that’s exactly the sort of on-the-scene reporting she handled so deftly so many times in her years at Today.

When I wrote almost two years ago that Moonves was courting Couric to replace Dan Rather, I said that she was probably the network’s best shot at resurrecting Evening News from the cellar of the nightly-news race. After a month and a half, she looks like more of a long shot. But certainly, she still has a shot.

No doubt, the newscast will evolve, and Couric will find her groove—a steadier balance between the seasoned journalist she is and the charming personality she displayed last week as a guest on The Late Show With David Letterman. But it will be hard to lure back those viewers who have already tuned in and surfed on after getting burned by all the hype.

CBS would have done better to have given Evening News and Couric a soft launch. As the guy who hired her says: “Under-promise and over-deliver.”

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com