TV NotebookIs It the Woman Thing,Or Is It Katie Couric?
By Bill Carter The New York Times
May 14, 2007
The numbers are stark. Eight months into Katie Couric's job as the first woman to anchor a network newscast on her own, her CBS Evening News has not only settled back into its long-held position of last among the evening news broadcasts, but also regularly falls short of the newscast that Ms. Couric replaced.
In the latest week's ratings, CBS Evening News had its worst performance since the Nielsen company installed its people meter ratings system 20 years ago.
Ms. Couric professed to be unfazed. Honestly, I think we're going to see ebbs and flows, she said in a telephone interview the day after receiving the ratings news. I don't think it's a doom-and-gloom scenario.
But it certainly is not a buoyant scenario either, as Sean McManus, the president of CBS News, acknowledged. We are a distant third, he said. There is no way to sugarcoat that fact.
CBS executives say their research had predicted that the newscast would continue to struggle in the ratings, even after the network's enormous investment in Ms. Couric an estimated $15 million in annual salary as well as millions more to build a new set and promote her and her newscast.
But the network seemed not fully prepared for a host of other developments that followed its expensive decision.
There has been a cascade of hostile comments in the press. Members of the news staff were quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer as suggesting that Ms. Couric might stay only through the 2008 election. And a recent Gallup poll reinforced the notion that Ms. Couric had become a polarizing figure: 29 percent of respondents said that they did not like her, as opposed to 51 percent who said that they liked her. (Her competitors at ABC and NBC both had negative scores under 20 percent and positives around 60.)
Turning around the newscast will be a serious challenge, one former longtime network news executive said. I think it will be very difficult, honestly, said the executive, who asked not to be identified because he expects to work again with one of the networks. Usually it takes a cataclysmic event to change news loyalties.
CBS Evening News continues to bring in revenue for the network the smallest share of a total of about $540 million for the three network newscasts combined and CBS executives said that it remains profitable. But network sales executives have estimated that for each 0.1 rating point a newscast drops among viewers from age 25 to 54, the program could lose $5 million to $6 million in revenue. (A point represents about 100,000 viewers.) CBS executives concede that as the ratings decline, so do the profits.
We're not making as much as we would if the ratings were up, said Mr. McManus.
Despite the low ratings and the reports of sniping from colleagues, the mood inside CBS News remains unshakably upbeat. In an interview in her office overlooking the set, Ms. Couric sought to convey the message, backed up by CBS management, that she was not going anywhere. Not now, not after the 2008 election, not anytime encompassed by her initial five-year contract.
Nor does she want to go anywhere, she insists. I have no regrets, she said.
The network's executives, including Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman, say they knew that they were acquiring probably the most avidly followed personality in television news, and so they did expect a media spotlight. But some of the other reactions caught them off guard.
Am I surprised by the attention? said Mr. Moonves. No. Am I surprised by the vitriol? Yes.
He and Mr. McManus took pains to deny vigorously that there has been any plan to unseat Ms. Couric. It's a flat-out lie that there has been any consideration, any meeting or any discussion about replacing Katie, Mr. McManus said.
This is a long-term commitment, Mr. Moonves said.
Ms. Couric, 50, made her debut on CBS in September, after 15 years at Today, accompanied by great fanfare. She was expected to appeal to younger viewers. And to a degree she has her ratings, while still usually third, are most competitive among younger women. But the newscast CBS created to try to take advantage of Ms. Couric's morning-show skills has already been discarded, discredited as a colossal misfire.
One senior CBS producer who supports Ms. Couric but requested anonymity because of a working relationship with some people on the program, summed up that initial newscast, saying, it was inane.
Ms. Couric said, I don't think there was ever a vision to blow up the evening news, but to maybe make some changes that would recharacterize it.
The biggest target of criticism was the segment called Free Speech, in which people like the film director Morgan Spurlock and the author Mitch Albom (as well as many unfamiliar voices) sounded off on issues for 90 seconds. But some CBS News staff members said they had been disappointed with the ill-focused approach of the entire newscast.
Part of the problem may have been timing, the former network executive said.
They decided to go away from hard news just when there was a shift in interest to real news, with continuing issues about Iraq and the early buildup to the presidential election.
Mr. McManus defends the choices CBS made. After years of hearing how the evening news was a dying institution, if the network had not tried to shake things up, he said, the industry would have said: why did you hire Katie Couric and put on the exact same newscast?
CBS's evening news broadcast has now been entrusted to the network news veteran Rick Kaplan, who was brought in seven weeks ago to improve the newscast and impose some hard-news discipline. He has increased the number of stories covered by the newscast, quickened the pace and instituted more focus on the lead story, adding sidebar reports to try to add context.
Many of the changes return the program to a more traditional format, but another longtime CBS news producer said that might not be the best use of Ms. Couric's skills. That show doesn't fit her personality, said the producer, who asked not to be identified because he works on another program.
And while the newscast's structure has been pummeled, Ms. Couric has also endured exceptional personal scrutiny. She was criticized for wearing too much makeup or too little. Ms. Couric was caught up in an odd plagiarism incident, when an essay she had presented as her own even though written by a producer turned out to have been lifted from The Wall Street Journal.
She was criticized for being too soft in her initial newscasts, and too hard in an interview with the presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, after they revealed that Mrs. Edwards's cancer had returned. The issue was complicated by the public knowledge that Ms. Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died from colon cancer in 1998.
Some people asked me if I was going to bring up Jay. I would never, Ms. Couric said. I want to educate people about colon cancer. But I never, ever want to exploit my husband's death.
Ms. Couric's defenders ask whether a man taking the CBS job would have had his looks, hair, and clothes commented on in the same way as Ms. Couric's. Or if a single male anchor's social life would be almost daily fodder for the tabloids.
Maybe we underestimate the huge shift this represented, Mr. McManus said. It was almost a watershed event to have a woman in that chair. He added, There is a percentage of people out there that probably prefers not to get their news from a woman.
Even some doubters inside the network say the newscast has improved under Mr. Kaplan. Ms. Couric has tried to break through on stories the network thinks play to her strengths.
For example, she quickly made her way to the campus of Virginia Tech after the killings there and did many interviews in a special hourlong newscast. (Her numbers increased that night, but ABC, with Charles Gibson still in the New York studio, won the ratings, as it has consistently over the last several months. Brian Williams of NBC was second.)
Even with some improvements, many staff members remain less than confident that the situation can be reversed, said one CBS producer who asked not to be identified because of concern that management did not want employees to criticize Ms. Couric. But Ms. Couric was not necessarily the problem, the producer said. People may be critical of her, but if they work with her, they like her, the producer said.
However, CBS still labors under some entrenched handicaps, like the weak performance of many of its stations, which leaves its evening news with the weakest lead-in audiences of the three networks. The program has typically finished more than 1.5 million viewers behind both of its network competitors. Ms. Couric's newscast audience is now off about 4 percent from the newscast anchored a year ago by Bob Schieffer, who had succeeded Dan Rather for an interim period that lasted 17 months.
Despite those numbers, some advertisers continue to be supportive. Andy Donchin, the director of national broadcast for the advertising agency Carat USA, said, It's still a good place for my clients to sell their products. Among the advertisers his firm represents are Pfizer, Hyundai and Alberto Culver.
Andrew Tyndall, who publishes a report that monitors the network evening newscasts, said Ms. Couric's newscast was a work in progress and that it was too soon to declare whether it would succeed or not. But, he said, she has misplayed the expectations game.
With those early expectations gone and signaling perhaps that CBS has no Plan B in the works, Mr. McManus said that the network is looking for long-term gains.
Our ratings will improve because of the quality of our newscast and the quality of our anchor, he said. That's the only plan that makes sense right now.
As to when that might happen, Mr. McManus said, Three years, four years, five years; that is the time frame that I think, realistically, you need to use to evaluate where the broadcast is and where CBS News is.http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/14/bu...gewanted=print