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Couric Opens Big, Levels Off

Despite mixed reviews of Katie Couric's first nights as anchor of The CBS Evening News—many critics panned everything from the story selection to her white blazer—the network's massive publicity machine succeeded in attracting millions of curious viewers to the program. The major question now: How many will stick around?

Couric lost viewers over her first three nights, but Evening News bested rivals NBC Nightly News and ABC World News and was still above its recent audience levels. The former Today star debuted on CBS Sept. 5 with an impressive 13.6 million viewers, nearly double the program's August average, but by Sept. 7, Couric dipped to 9.5 million viewers. Like any new fall program, researchers say it will take several weeks of sampling before ratings stabilize.

Early reaction from some viewers was overwhelmingly in Couric's favor. In a snapshot survey of about 400 viewers released exclusively to B&C, TV consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates found 89% of respondents were aware of Couric's new position at CBS News, and 20% said they tuned into the newscast last week.

Of those viewers, 49% ranked her performance as excellent, surpassing Magid's usual threshold of 40% for top talent. “Couric is a star,” says Magid VP Bill Hague. Even more encouraging, 61% of respondents said Couric gave them a strong reason to watch CBS Evening News, giving her scores of 8-to-10 on a scale where 10 is the highest. Respondents praised Couric as “high quality” and “serious” and applauded her status as the first female to solo-anchor a network newscast.

But industry analysts doubt Couric will attract droves of new viewers in an aging, declining daypart. “News is very habit-driven, and it is not a volatile time period like primetime,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research for Horizon Media. “CBS is hoping people will make Katie Couric a part of their day, but a lot of viewers just aren't home at 6:30 p.m.”

Such realities have prompted CBS News to stream Evening News live on the Web, a first for network news, and feature Couric in a blog, looking to attract younger audiences. Even so, the evening newscast is CBS' marquee platform and, despite declines in audiences for network news, its biggest news stage on television.

On average, 25 million viewers watch evening news. The average viewer, however, only tunes in about two nights per week, according to CBS News research. Couric will have to fight it out with top-rated Nightly and World News for her share of that audience. News viewing is traditionally light in the summer and early fall and picks up when viewers settle into their fall schedules. As promised, CBS delivered some new features to the program, including guest commentary segment “Free Speech” and photo-of-the-day feature “Snap Shots.”

CBS News President Sean McManus says he wants to see “slow and gradual growth” in ratings over coming months. — Allison Romano

Senators Call for News Corp. Inquiry

The senators from EchoStar's home state of Colorado want the Senate Judiciary Committee to investigate News Corp—which controls rival DirecTV—over its push to have EchoStar's imported distant signals cut off.

In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the committee, Senators Wayne Allard, a Republican, and Ken Salazar, a Democrat, said they were concerned with Fox/News Corp.'s rejection of a $100 million deal between EchoStar and all the network affiliates, including Fox's, that EchoStar hoped would settle their long-standing dispute.

TV stations filed suit against EchoStar in 1998, arguing that it was importing network-affiliated stations into markets where viewers could already get a signal from the local affiliate of the same network. By law, such signals can only be imported to viewers who can't get an acceptable signal from their local affiliate.

A federal court found that EchoStar had been breaking the law by failing to distinguish properly between eligible and ineligible homes, and directed a lower court to implement a permanent injunction.—John Eggerton

Correction

An Aug. 28 story on the weak upfront advertising market for cable networks stated that Hallmark Channel prices dipped from last year. Hallmark says that, while it sold less inventory, the network's prices were flat.

Spot Sales To Rise in '08

The Television Bureau of Advertising projects ad spending on spot television will stagnate in 2007, but rebound in 2008 on the strength of political spending.

In 2007, the TVB expects local spot sales to be flat to down 2%, and then rally up 8% to 10% in 2008, the group said at its annual forecasting conference last week in New York.

Such a two-year bust-boom cycle has become the norm in local TV ad sales, with Olympic and political spending buoying even-numbered years.

Indeed, such heavy political spending is driving this year's local spot sales.

Political advertising from state and federal candidates and issue-related campaigns is expected to hit $1.4 billion this year and could exceed the $1.61 billion spent in 2004, according to forecasts from TNS Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group.

While some campaigns are shifting small amounts of money to cable and online ads, local television is still the prime vehicle for political spending, says Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

“State and local races continue to be married to television,” he says. “It is the biggest megaphone that these candidates have.”

Media analyst Victor Miller offered a slightly lower political forecast, calling for $1.25 billion in spending this year on local spot, down from $1.4 billion in 2004. (Some issue-related money makes up the gap in the projections.) Miller said the 2008 elections are expected to be so contentious that some stations could start to see '08-related spending as soon as the first quarter of 2007.

Looking to the overall advertising market for next year, the TVB expects national spot sales to decline 7% to 9%, leaving total combined spot off 1% to 3%. Syndication and network cable are forecast to grow in the low single digits, while local cable will increase 2% to 4%.—Allison Romano

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