Rick Kaplan: CBS' New Commander in the News Wars


Why did you decide to go back to network news?

I’d been planning to go back to do programs long before I left MSNBC. I love doing programs and I’m much more comfortable with network news than cable news simply—let’s just say in network news, you can be more judicious about what you choose to report on and how you choose to spend your time. A week ago [CBS News/Sports President] Sean [McManus] and I had a lunch where we talked about it, and then a couple of days ago we actually talked about doing the show and the whole deal went down within hours.

Why do you think this newscast has struggled?

They’re in a situation where all three anchors changed on all three networks. When you look at it logically you sit and realize that on NBC they had spent months, even years preparing to transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams, a known commodity to the NBC audience, and to the audience it was just a simple evolution. At ABC, Charlie [Gibson] is also a superb anchor who has been on the air on ABC forever, and the transition even through all their turmoil was to somebody the ABC audience recognized. CBS did a very courageous thing: they went outside. They brought in a terrific anchor, somebody who obviously I think is among the very finest ever in the business, but she was somebody who as familiar as she is to the television audience in general was not as familiar to the CBS audience, especially the CBS Evening News audience used to Dan Rather, Bob Scheiffer, Walter Cronkite and all the rest of them. And they also transitioned from one of the middle-aged white guys to a woman which also takes the audience time to get used to. So you’re in a period where audiences are determining how they’re going to spend their time. They’re looking at three brand new anchors, so to speak, to them, as the three father figures have moved on, and I just think what you see is normal flux of audiences. As they’re watching one, watching the other, I think you’ll see the ratings bounce back and forth a lot.

Katie was just named favorite journalist of the year by the Pew Research Center, yet her show is still in third – do you think this is about people not being ready to see a woman running a newscast?

That’s silly, actually I think. Women have taken their place at the table in journalism, so to speak. This is just a matter of an audience getting used to an anchor they’re not used on their network. This is a period of time where it’s all about comfort levels. You’re still talking about her audience being well almost 8 million people. This is pretty much the second inning of a nine-inning game, and you’ve just got to give the audience time to find it. These audiences don’t change all that rapidly. They may sample quickly because so much is written or said about somebody, but when they finally determine who they’re going to sit and join every night, that takes a while for them to come to that conclusion.

What kinds of changes do you plan to make?

What we intend to do is continue to grow this program, to continue to look for better ways and stronger ways to really serve the needs of our viewers, of anyone who chooses to spend time with our program. You know, these are very serious times in our world and we have a lot of problems and a lot of concerns. People are dealing with homeland security and the questions of Iraq and the questions of nukes in Asia, nukes in the Middle East and instabilities around the world. And they’re looking at Medicare problems and environmental problems and concerns. We just have a raft of problems. We’re coming into a presidential election where…one of most controversial campaigns maybe was 1960 and “Should we elect a Catholic?” Well, this year, they’re going to get to choose from not just Catholics, but Mormons and African-Americans and women so there’s a lot of questions and concerns among the public about how we’re going to solve a lot of the problems that we face. So it’s serious times and we’re going to look for ways to try to assuage people’s concerns, answer people’s questions.

We’re dealing with an audience that’s so much better informed than any audience ever was in the history of our profession and our business. The first time I did evening news when I was working on the Cronkite show, or when I did Peter Jennings or Nightline or any of the shows I’ve done, people came to the [TV] and until the anchor said, ‘Good evening. Here’s the news,’ they didn’t know what was going on because there wasn’t a 24/7 cable network anywhere, there wasn’t an Internet, we didn’t have cell phones and pagers and a raft of headlines and information swirling about and so they really were reliant on the evening news. That made the evening news more compelling because they didn’t know what they were about to see, but it also made it in many ways a different kind of challenge for people like me who were producing shows for them at the time because it was a matter of putting things in perspective as they happened and you had a number of hours to do that. Today they come to the TV set having seen the news all day long, heard the headlines, seen the video that’s extraordinary, whatever. They’ve been reading about the news on their homepage, their pager, their cell phone. They’ve seen cable so they come and they’re informed and we have a responsibility if we’re going to meet their needs to carry the news ahead and we have a responsibility not just to repeat things to them but to report things to them. So there’s a much greater challenge to all the journalists in the business today and we’re going to work real hard to meet that.

If I gave a transcript of the evening news—any evening news—to an audience of the ‘70s or ‘80s and I said, “Circle things you didn’t know until the anchor told you about them,” there would be 20-30 circles on the page because that’s just the information level. But if you gave a transcript of today’s evening news anyone’s evening news—to an audience today and you said, “Tell me the things you didn’t know before you watched the show,” I fear you might find only five or six circles on their pages because people come armed with so much more information. So that’s our challenge, to be able to report and bring stories ahead and really serve their needs, meet their needs, make their time spent with us totally worthwhile.

So what is the relevance of a nightly newscast now?

I really don’t think there’s a more relevant newscast in the industry than the nightly news. I know a lot’s written about shrinking audiences in the press. On most nights, the evening news is one of the highest rated programs on a network’s schedule including all of primetime. There’s still 25-30 million people that go into the timeslot every night. That’s a lot of people searching for information. I really believe that as baby boomers come of age and all the rest, there’s a real potential to grow the total audience, but it’s a matter of meeting their needs. It’s a matter of not just reporting things they know, things they’ve heard, but taking those stories and telling them more information about it, giving them more of the kinds of things they need to carry on with their lives.

Do you think too much is made of ratings in analyzing executive changes?

I’m not stupid or silly. Of course ratings are a way we measure how well one’s message is resonating and getting out to the public. That is a factor. But I will tell you that it’s my experience—and I’ve been at a number of shops—and it’s clearly the attitude around CBS news, the first concern is to the continued growth and development of the program. And if you’re doing a program that you are satisfied with and you like the path that it’s on, that really comes before the ratings, you know, because the ratings will follow the quality of program. If the program is of the highest quality and meeting the needs of its viewers, the ratings will come. It’s kind of like Field of Dreams. If we build it, they will come.

Your former [ABC News] colleague Bill Lord told the New York Times that ratings are mostly related to the anchor, so why when the ratings dip is it the Executive Producer who’s out?

Bill’s an old friend and God bless him. The truth is—and I think Bill would agree with this—the only thing that can make you Number 1 is your anchor because ultimately, people are tuning in to watch someone, so the anchor can make you Number 1. But the producers and the cast of people who bring the reporting to life—and those are your reporters on the air and your producers behind the scenes—if we’re not doing our job, no matter how good the anchor is, the show will be last. So, you’re looking for the perfect storm: the great anchor, and we believe we have that in Katie, and the great staff, and we believe we have that at CBS News. You get both of those working in sync and again, the anchor makes you Number 1 and the staff assures it.

You’ve dealt with some pretty strong personalities in your years in the industry. What’s your strategy to get everyone on the same page about how the news should look?

I’ve been really privileged to work with extraordinary journalists—Walter Chronkite, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Diane Sawyer, Charlie, I don’t want to leave anybody off the list, and now Katie. The joy of working with them is not that they roll over. The joy of working with them is not that they’ll just do anything that you want and that they’ll just be a pretty face up there. These are really skilled journalists. They have opinions. They have takes on stories. They have a lot of input and a smart producer cherishes that and uses that. There are times when you don’t see eye to eye on things, but what makes that relationship strong is not that you always have to agree but it’s that when you disagree, you know how to make up, how to keep your relationship growing and going and that’s really what I’ve always enjoyed with any anchor I’ve worked with. They’re all strong personalities. They’re incredibly accomplished people. Frankly, they’re worth every dime that they get because they have a lot out there.

I once did a Nightline with Ted and he was kind enough to follow my lead. It was July fourth and we were kind of struggling with what the heck was going on on July fourth and I had this wonderful idea where we’d go down to Dallas to do Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson’s BBQ, which was going all day—they’re doing a concert all day. And Ted said, “That’s a great idea. We’ll talk about what it’s like to be an American.” OK, fine. The other thing I arranged was to go up to Boston and do George Plimpton and a fireworks expert and we’ll be right with the Boston Pops and we’ll be there when they do the 1812 overture and Arthur Fiedler will be conducting and we can talk about how you sync up fireworks to music and how every fireworks has a signature and we said oh, that’s great. So that was the Nightline and we come on the air with “Stars and Stripes Forever” and isn’t this terrific. Now, I’m this whiz-bang producer and what I didn’t realize was, by time we come to air, Willie and Kris have been at this BBQ singing and drinking for 11 hours as have the 12,000 people singing and drinking with them. So when we come to them, they’re 12 sheets to wind. They’re not three sheets to the wind. It’s absolutely hysterical. We think, OK, fine, let’s get it up to Boston. So we have a great show out of the Boston Pops and we’re right by the cannons and where the fireworks go off. But you know what? When the Boston Pops play, they’re loud and when 21 cannons start exploding, they’re really loud and when zillions of fireworks explode right in front of you, that’s even louder. So consequently, George and his fireworks expert can’t hear us and we can’t hear them and the whole half hour is a train wreck. What does my mother say the next morning? ‘Ted really screwed up, didn’t he?’

I always think about that because it’s the anchor who’s always going to get stuck with what did or didn’t work. They’re the ones hanging it out there and they’re the ones whose signature is on the show very dramatically and publicly. I cherish what they do and love what they do and love their input, but the way you get on with them is you respect their position and they know that you respect their position and they respect you as well because of that and when you have disagreements, it’s important to work them out. Diane Sawyer is a pro’s pro just like Katie and I’d work with any of them any time, but Diane and I used to joke that it’s like a marriage and it’s not about the argument, it’s how you make up. And you keep that on a professional level, and that’s been easy to do because they are all professionals. The better they are, the more professional they are.

You’re known for being a tough boss and having sharp elbows. Is that how you’d describe yourself?

I saw one article that said I was a bull in a china shop. I prefer to think of myself as a gazelle in the china shop. The truth of it is, and I’m not the one to speak on it, but if you go and talk to nearly anyone who worked for me at MSNBC or CNN or any show I’ve ever produced, I don’t know that you’ll get that bull in a china shop or the sharp elbows. That said, I clearly have a vision of what I’d like to see, along with the high standards taught to me here at CBS News. I have great respect for the colleagues I work for. I understand that this is a very collegial process and it doesn’t work unless it is a joint, communal process.

I think some writers need something to say to fill their space. I once asked a writer, who by the way was the first person to write about my sharp elbows, “Why did you write that?” and he said, “I don’t know. My editor thought it would make you more colorful.” I said, “I’m going to have to live that down for the rest of my life.” That article ran 27 years ago and ever since, every time I go somewhere and every time I’m interviewed, I’m asked about elbows. When you’re 6’7” you’re consistently compared to a bear. A wonderful friend of mine at the Washington Post 30 years ago wrote about how I was “a mastodon of a producer” or something. So at this advanced stage of my career, I prefer to think of myself as a gazelle in the china shop.

You have a 20something daughter, right? Do they—

I have one daughter in her 20s and one in her 30s. I’m very blessed. They’re wonderful. I’m so proud and privileged. They’re my best friends. My older daughter, who’s just barely over 30, has blessed me with two grandsons. My younger daughter is about to bless me with a grandchild in June so I have just a wonderful family, so I could not be prouder of my girls and no, neither one of them ever wanted to be in journalism.

Do they watch the evening news?

They do. They both watch the nightly news. They both watch networks and Katie Couric is their favorite anchor before you ask me.

How do you bring in viewers in that demo and is that even your goal?

My goal is to bring in more and more viewers. Did you ever take Boolean algebra in college?

I kind of gave up math after high school.

Gotcha. Well, I teach at two universities so I tend to use those kinds of examples. In Boolean algebra, you learn something called set theory. In every block of audience, there’s a certain percentage in every kind of age group. The larger you make your sample, the larger the number of the key demo. I will tell you at this network, Katie Couric has already brought in a healthier, younger demo than the network news has been used to in the past. I can tell you that our evening news, for instance, is up nearly 10% inwomen 18-49. But I will tell you that if we increased our total comp of audience by 10%, we would also increase our demo by close to 10%. So for me I’m shooting for 100 share of the audience and in 100 share of the audience, I’m going to have a lot of young people.

You’re friendly with Bill Clinton—

I’m friendly with Bill Clinton. You know, when you’re around long enough, you’re friendly with lots of people—John McCain, Alan Simpson. A lot’s been written about it, simply because you go back and think of context of times. I am friends with the Clintons, but you know what? That’s about one’s personal life not about one’s professional life. That was used by one of the networks when they were trying to get established…you know, I don’t even want to go there. Yeah, I’m pals with them, it doesn’t affect my professional life at all.

Well, I was going to ask if you thought that friendship leaves you open to criticism that you bring a liberal bias to the newscast.

I have a 37-year record in the news business and I would really stand on it in terms of a bias to the right or the left. I’d be happy to have [you] examine it before you talk about it.