The news that Katie Couric may leave her anchor post at “CBS Evening News” when her contract expires in June – only five years after becoming the first woman to solo helm a network TV evening newscast – is generating heated speculation over where she would head and who would replace her.
It is also fueling a dialogue about what her exit would say – and not say – about the changing environment of broadcast news, journalism itself, fractured audiences and about Ms. Couric’s abilities.
Ms. Couric took over at CBS in April, 2006, amid the unique confluence of exits for the three main, longtime network anchors: CBS’s Dan Rather, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, and through death, ABC’s Peter Jennings.
Amid the explosive growth of Internet, cable, and the blogosphere, speculation was widespread that perhaps the age-old model of a single, day’s-end newscast, led by an authority figure, might be a thing of the past.
One big question that endures for all three newscasts is how to attract and hold younger viewers who are growing up with jazzier options, from chat-happy bloggers to the wry news commentary of Comedy Central.
A prized skill set
Couric came to CBS after 15 successful and highly-rated years on NBC’s “Today Show.” Her skill set, which stretched from interviewing chefs to book authors to heads of state – not to mention her relative youth, famous smile, and gender – was considered possibly the perfect lure.
Now, however, some observers are saying that breadth may be better suited to a daytime, talk-show format, and there is widespread speculation that Oprah Winfrey’s exit from the daytime syndication schedule has opened a door for Couric.
When she took over, the “CBS Evening News” was in third place. It has stayed there for five years but earned, in this past quarter, its lowest ratings since 1992, reaching only some 6.4 million viewers.
“People wonder why Couric could have been so successful in the morning at the ‘Today Show’ but couldn't generate ratings in the evening. The main reason is that different audiences are involved,” says Jeffrey McCall, media studies professor at DePauw University in Indiana.
“Her chattiness in the morning worked fine with that audience, but evening news viewers want a solid news agenda from somebody who is credible and perceived as a solid journalist. It was hard for Couric to make that transition after years of morning features and dressing up in Halloween costumes, and so forth.”
Prof. McCall says a lesson for the journalistic community to learn here is that you can’t make network news shows personality-driven. “That can work well on cable television prime time, as evidenced by shows like ‘The O'Reilly Factor,’ ” he says, “but network flagship newscasts need seasoned reporters and a seriousness that Couric couldn't deliver.”
Affection for network newscast
Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, says the Couric episode has confirmed the affection for and stability of the network evening newscast. No matter who would take over for her – Scott Pelley, Harry Smith, and John Roberts have been mentioned as possibilities – the classic format has survived.
“In an odd sort of way, the old-fashionedness of the evening news is coming around again and might be looked on as avante garde,” says Thompson. “When all the smoke clears, the evening news will look pretty much like is it has looked since the mid-'50s. The fact remains that even though numbers are way down for all three broadcasts, they are down for just about everything else as well.”
“This is not a reflection of her inabilities, but rather the marketplace,” he says. He notes that a lot of other important indicators are down as well, citing the low ratings of Irish journalist Piers Morgan, who took over the popular “Larry King Live” on CNN in October.
It’s time to stop using an old media model in a new media world, says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” “The time is no longer right for her or any news anchor’s huge success,” he says, adding that the era of the iconic, Walter Cronkite-style news anchor is over.