What CBS can do to upgrade Evening News post-Katie Couric (and why they should)
I know: Many of you reading this probably get your news through an iPad linked to a satellite hookup wired to get past the New York Times' new paywall. But for the rest of us, it still matters who fronts the big network newscasts.
And the Associated Press has managed to find someone at CBS who will say -- anonymously, of course -- that anchor Katie Couric is leaving soon to front a talk show.
TMZ also says new CBS News chief Jeff Fager wants 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley to get the job; if true, it wouldn't a be surprise, because Fager is also the executive producer of 60 Minutes and Pelley is the show's best correspondent.
This is the same way news percolated out that Couric was leaving NBC for CBS five years ago; various admissions were made off the record and behind the scenes before the corporate machines behind the big networks would say publicly what media watchers already knew for weeks.
Couric herself is headed for Iraq right after giving an interview to the New York Times magazine where she isn't asked specifically about leaving her anchor job and she cites low affiliate ratings as a contributing factor to her ratings woes.
When Couric finally does announce her deal, it will likely be the worst kept secret in media since her last move.
Since I already named who I think should replace her -- 60 Minutes' correspondent Scott Pelley is the obvious favorite, PBS' Gwen Ifill remains my unorthodox hope -- talk right now should likely turn toward how the broadcast should change.
First, I'm still not down with all the talk about scuttling the evening newscasts. Last year, the three newscasts drew a combined average of 21-million people each day, while cable newscast audiences dropped by nearly 14 percent overall and 16 percent in prime time.
The trend is working against the network newscasts, for sure. But CBS's smartest TV news mind, 60 Minutes executive producer Fager, is now the man in charge. And just ask NBC what happens when you turn into a TV trend too soon (giving up on 10 p.m. timeslot and trying to shrug off affiliates with Jay Leno's show as Exhibit A).
So what would I do? Glad you asked:
Move the newscast to 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. - One way to get more viewers is to move the newscast to a timeslot people are watching. This will take some negotiating with affiliates, which often air profitable syndicated shows in that timeslot. But it's time to move news reports to a time when people can consume them, which means later in the day.
Hire more great reporters -- If Pelley does get the big job, CBS will need a top name to take his place at 60 Minutes, anyway. Why not use the money CBS News will save by losing Couric's $15-million annual salary to hire more good reporters -- not necessarily big names -- to create the kind of memorable content that will draw viewers.
Align with CNN already -- It feels like half of CNN's stars already contribute to 60 Minutes, anyway (okay, just Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta right now). It's time for CBS to gain the continuous reporting muscle and 24-hour access which comes from a partnership with a cable newschannel. And the most traditional cable newschannel could benefit from access to the great journalists on 60 Minutes, Evening News, Face the Nation and CBS Sunday Morning.
Develop a real online presence with value for consumers -- Leveraging Couric across multiple platforms was a good idea. The problem is, nobody wants to take precious time clicking on softball webcast interviews with Glenn Beck. But someone with a greater thirst for hard news reporting might make more of the platforms now available, including iPad and iPhone apps, Facebook, Twitter and other areas of social media. The extra interview clips and reports on 60 Minutes Overtime are a great example of using the web to deliver more material worth consuming; time to move that concept to a revamped Evening News platform and kick it into overdrive.
Own some stories -- NBC's Brian Williams had Hurricane Katrina and the disaster in New Orleans. CNN's Cooper had the disaster in Haiti and early unrest in Egypt. ABC's Christiane Amanpour nailed crucial interviews with leaders in Egypt and the Middle East during unrest there and in Libya. But the last memorable story Couric covered for CBS News just might be her Sarah Palin interview in 2008. Time for third-place CBS to own some important stories in a way that signals a new sheriff is in town. Of course, it's easy to say "break big stories." But CNN's success is proving that traditional news channels find their most success when reporting traditional news well. So do it, already.