Can This Anchor be Saved? Six Months In, Katie Couric Needs Some Help at CBS
Her boss points out that it took Tom Brokaw 13 years to hit Number One. Even interim anchor Bob Schieffer needed a year to pile 300,000 viewers on top of those ousted anchor Dan Rather was still drawing every night.
So there's lot of excuses for why CBS anchor Katie Couric is a solid third place-finisher on today, her six-month anniversary as the face of the Tiffany Network's news division. Instead, Febrary's "sweeps" ratings period saw ABC's Charlie Gibson crowned new king of the evening news.
(NBC just announced today its vice president of news Alexandra Wallace is taking over as Executive Producer of NBC Nightly News less than a week after Nightly and anchor Brian Williams lost the first sweeps month in more than a decade to Gibson. Wallace, the first woman to EP a network evening newscast in a decade, comes to the helm as network news insiders whisper that Williams has been steadily losing the ratings lead handed him by predecessor Tom Brokaw.)
My story in today's Floridian offers five bitter lessons the folks at CBS' Black Rock headquarters may have taken from the experience so far. CBS News president Sean McManus was pretty open and candid during a quick interview last week in which he claimed he wouldn't even look closely at the evening news ratings for a year.
"This is not a process that will take months; It’s going to take years," he said. "We’ve got an anchor who has not anchored an evening newscast before, and she's under a much bigger scrutiny than any news anchor. I like (ABC's) Charlie (Gibson) a lot, I have great respect for the broadcast they’re doing – I feel happy for Charlie....Even he said 'It’s important for Katie to do well as the first woman, I just don’t want her to do too well.'...It really is a long process."
Were you disappointed that a lot of the initial audience that turned up for Katie didn't stick around?
"Our research people said -- and it was discouraging to us -- you’re going to get an enormous initial curiosity of people tuning in. What going to happen is its going to go down to same level you’ve had in the last year or so – because people do not change their habits on a full time basis quickly. We all said, ‘Nah, we’re going to do better than this.'... And we discussed that with Katie. I would say listen, let us not after three months, six months eight months focus on the ratings – let’s focus on the show. None of us are surprised by what’s happening. Although a lot of us are more optimistic than the research people said we had a right to be.”
Was Free Speech, the segment where you allowed people outside CBS News to make commentaries, a mistake?
“The email on Free Speech was just about split, 50/50. In retrospect, the fact that it became so controversial, maybe that was a good thing. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so precipitous in pulling it off. But it was a very divisive, on some nights, a very divisive segment into the show…the decision we made was that we hadn’t quite established ourselves enough to be so divisive...We need to establish the newscast as something that is credible as a newscast. Once we establish Katie, I would think we would experiment with some thing. There is a large segment of this audience that doesn’t want something that isn’t traditional.”
As a finale, let me offer five slightly more cynical additional lessons for Couric presented by Mike "Surly Editor" James on his Newsblues Web site:
Lesson 6: Hype eventually gives way to reality.
Lesson 7: Morning personalities don't transition easily to hard news.
Lesson 8: A $15 million paycheck does not guarantee credibility.
Lesson 9: Les Moonves will still get a whopping year-end bonus.
Lesson 10: Expect to see Couric in Baghdad soon.
--- Turns out, there's a story behind ABC's development of a sitcom based on Geico's Caveman commercials, and the Wall Street Journal has it (talk about product placement!)
--- NBC has spun off the Today show's online area from MSNBC.com into Todayshow.com, redesgining and upgrading the site with four new topics areas, a blog featuring posts from all the Today show talent and producers (won't they have enough to do with a fourth hour of Today in the fall?) and a video blog from the least telegenic member of the Today show family, Al Roker.
(I love Al -- I swear his wit and ease on camera is the Today's show's secret weapon -- but don't these boneheads know the people who read blogs the most are thirty- and fortysomething male worker bees killing time until their next break?)