Evening news' trump card: Katie Couric

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If Katie-mania persists past Tuesday night – when Ms. Couric at last appears in her new role as sole anchor and managing editor of "CBS Evening News" – the network's gamble to rebuild its news cachet, and its audience, will almost certainly become one for the textbooks.

Only time (and the ratings) will tell. But win or lose, the five months of buzz leading up to Katie Couric's CBS debut – longer than a president-elect takes to assume office – have spurred a national conversation about everything from the emphasis on celebrity in public life to gender roles and political bias in the media.

All the attention on the former "Today" cohost stems partly from the fact that Couric is the first woman to occupy the post and has the highest anchor salary ever (reportedly over $15 million a year). But her new career path has also been an occasion to dissect the future of the half-hour network newscast itself.

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"CBS's hiring of Katie Couric is a 'Hail Mary' pass to regain relevance and shake up the network news neighborhood," says Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. In reaching for the former morning-show host, CBS News, home to journalism legends such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, is reaching for "more sizzle and less steak, all in the hopes of reaching the ever-elusive younger demographic," he adds.

Many women applaud Couric's appointment to the top of the network-news food chain. Even so, others note that media oversaturation means the evening newscast is not the premier slot it once was. "With the rise of online news formats and rampant 24-hour news stations, the anchor spot has little of the power and prestige that once characterized the role for Walter Cronkite and even for the [Peter] Jennings/[Dan] Rather/[Tom] Brokaw generation," says Robin Crabtree, a communications professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Not enough housecleaning at CBS?

Some media observers fault CBS for not cleaning house in the wake of Mr. Rather's departure, a resignation triggered in part by questions over credibility.

CBS missed a prime opportunity to turn over a new leaf, says Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, a watchdog group in Alexandria, Va., dedicated to ferreting out liberal bias in the media, citing dozens of on-air examples of such bias. "Katie is an indisputably attractive and charming presence," says Mr. Bozell, "but her record is also that of a liberal activist, not a fair and balanced journalist. She won't fix the bias problem that has eroded CBS's credibility."

Last week's flap over a doctored publicity photo designed to "slim" Couric by some 20 pounds hasn't helped CBS's efforts to re-establish its credibility. Manipulating a photo may seem a small thing, says Mr. Felling, but given the fact that Rather's departure involved questions about forged documents, it's hard to understand such a faux pas at such a crucial transition moment. "What was CBS thinking?" he asks.

Beyond that, Felling says, the doctored photo would only alienate the very audience CBS is courting: "women who won't take kindly to their Katie being dissed in-house."

CBS executives have dismissed the photo as the work of an overzealous, in-house publicity department.

Others go so far as to suggest that the network evening newscast is becoming obsolete.

"Katie Couric will not save the 'CBS Evening News,' " says former ABC producer Christopher Harper. All three major networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – have watched their viewerships decline in recent years and now face the same issues of a dwindling, aging audience. While 25 million or so people still watch the evening news – a significant demographic – that figure is only declining, in much the same way as readers of an evening edition of a daily newspaper did 40 years ago.

"It's highly likely that one of the networks will end its formal newscast in the next five years," says Mr. Harper, and find other uses for the time slot.

Katie as on-air freshener

Not everyone gives such a dour assessment of the implications of Couric's move. Many marketing experts applaud CBS for making a bold decision that could lift its evening newscast from third place in the ratings.

The network is trying to put someone at the desk whom the public will identify with and be loyal to, says branding expert Francis Kelly, author of "The Breakaway Brand." "They're trying to put a younger, fresher, female face on the front end of their news machine," says Mr. Kelly. "I don't see why that has to diminish the trust of the product being delivered."

While plans for additional changes to the program have been a well-guarded secret, Couric told a gathering of television critics in July that she expects to give stories greater context and perspective, despite the limitations of a 22-minute newscast.

After taking a closed-to-the-press town-hall tour across the country, and talking to average American viewers, Couric dismissed questions about toning down her dress or personal style, saying that audiences don't care about those things. They want serious news. "I get the distinct sense they want us to go a little deeper," she said in July.

As for the effect of such intense scrutiny of their anchor-elect, CBS news president Sean McManus suggests that, indeed, there may be no such thing as bad publicity. "In the end," he says, "it's drawing an enormous amount of attention to our program."

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