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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

A short, glorious run

Katie, You’re On
Couric has boosted interest in evening news. Can networks cash in?
By Matea Gold, Times Staff Writer
September 5, 2006

NEW YORK -- The new theme song that will open the "CBS Evening News" tonight is by the same composer who did the score for "Field of Dreams," so perhaps it's appropriate for Katie Couric to recall a sentiment from that movie when asked about her hopes of attracting more viewers to the third-place broadcast.

"If we build it, they will come," she said with a grin.

And after months of speculation, followed by anticipation, Couric and CBS have finally built it.

Few doubt that Couric's debut on the newscast this evening will inflate the audience in the short-term. From the first rumors that the longtime morning anchor was considering making the jump to CBS, her move has been covered with the kind of intense scrutiny and speculation usually reserved for prospective presidential candidates.

"With all the attention given to not just us, but Charlie [Gibson] and Brian [Williams], I think there's been more written about this time period in the last three months than probably in history," said CBS News President Sean McManus.

But it remains to be seen what effect Couric — who will be the first sole female anchor of a network evening newscast — will have on the genre, which has been plagued by steady audience erosion for several decades.

In the last year, overall viewership of the three broadcasts has ebbed amid a period of remarkable upheaval behind the anchor desks, one that appears to have finally drawn to a close with Charles Gibson's appointment to ABC's "World News" in May and Couric's arrival at CBS. By the end of the season, NBC remained in the lead, but its audience was down about 5% and ABC had dropped 9%, while CBS had edged upward — the only newscast to do so.

Executives at all the networks say they hope to benefit from the recent wave of publicity about the new matchup in the evening. But television news analysts warn that reversing the trend in viewership is a difficult proposition, especially during a time when people increasingly seek news and information from other sources.

"I don't think it would be a surprise if the amount of ink spilled on this floated the audience upward" initially, said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN who runs NewsLab, a Washington-based nonprofit journalism training and research center. "But I don't think people's lives have changed, and the amount of time they have to spend hasn't changed."

So even as the networks gear up for a renewed competition at 6:30 p.m. this fall, another equally important showdown is playing out in a different arena: online.

In their bid to remain relevant, the newscasts are hurriedly developing ways to reach viewers throughout the day. NBC's Williams, already a veteran blogger, recently began filing a new video blog every morning. ABC's Gibson does a top-rated podcast every afternoon. And all three broadcasts regularly post video online that viewers can access on-demand, creating their own news program.

People are going to watch the way they watch a car wreck. Couric is spetacularly unsuited for this job, with her cheery demeanor and mom-like appearance. Gravitas is a good word for what she lacks. Elizabeth Vargas lasted how long? Barbara Walters?

Les Moonves has wanted to shake up the news for a long time. Only problem, being an anchor is just shy of being President in terms of public persona. Which has generally restricted who became an anchor. Couric may start out large, but is more than likely to lose audience quickly. Why? Because she just doesn't have the gravitas to deliver bad news. Today had a very different audience, where deadly serious would have hurt.

Having Couric as the face of the network may not go the way Moonves planned.

posted by Steve @ 12:49:00 AM

12:49:00 AM

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