Expect no miracles from Katie

The CBS anchor-to-be downplays all the hype


Katie Couric won't be altering her look. She won't be going off to war merely to read the news while "standing somewhere in a flak jacket." And most of all, she isn't expecting any big "surge" in ratings for CBS Evening News With Katie Couric this fall.

As the network's promotional blitz for its new $60 million anchorwoman kicks into high gear, Couric, who will debut in her new role Sept. 5, yesterday launched a counter-campaign of sorts, ratcheting down expectations and softening the drumbeat of hype.

Though Couric and executive producer Rome Hartman seemed in accord yesterday during a telephone news conference, Couric adeptly tamped down some of the buzz that has surrounded her since she stepped down in May as co-anchor of NBC's Today show. She also tried to lower public expectations about her new role at CBS.

Though the network, for example, is airing promotional ads across the country showing a somber Couric in business suit and pearls, the 49-year-old journalist stressed that viewers will not be witnessing a makeover from the Couric they saw on Today.

"I'm going to pretty much look the same way, unfortunately, that I have always looked," Couric said. "I have no plans to get a crew cut or shop at Brooks Brothers or whatever. I take pride in the fact that I always tried to dress appropriately for the Today show, which has a little more leeway. But I'm going to wear things that I think are attractive and not too distracting. Hopefully, I'll have good hygiene and look professional."

CBS, currently in third place behind top-ranked NBC and runner-up ABC, hopes to lure young viewers by promising a strong online presence for Couric, including a daily Web cast and a blog. She is also expected to be involved in the network's daily radio newscast.

When ABC launched its now-abandoned version of World News Tonight with Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas in January, network News President David Westin presented them as new anchors "for the digital age" based on their Web presence. But some analysts wondered at the time how any anchor could find enough hours in a day to do all the blogging and Web casting promised. (Before the two journalists could establish themselves in the co-anchor roles, Woodruff was injured in Iraq and Vargas took maternity leave.)

"I think they are about No. 6 on my to-do list after going to the grocery store," Couric said jokingly in answer to a question about the relative importance of blogging and Web casting. Her duties at CBS include serving as a correspondent for the newsmagazine 60 Minutes as well as managing editor of the network's signature broadcast, the nightly news.

"I want to have some kind of presence [online], but as you can imagine, I have quite a bit to do during the course of a day in addition to working on several pieces for 60 Minutes already. I think it's great to have some kind of anchor presence on the Web, but I'll be doing that with a variety of correspondents."

As Couric sees it, she will be updating the blog about once a week after she settles into her new duties: "The blog is going to be important to me, but it's not top of mind right now," she said.

The news anchor also set the record straight on a report that she would not be traveling to war zones and other danger spots to anchor the news. The erroneous article appeared on an Access Hollywood Web site story in July.

"For me, family considerations are one consideration that I will keep in mind when I'm making these kind of decisions," said Couric, a single mother of two.

But journalistic considerations - such as whether her presence would advance a story - would inform her decisions as well. "If I had an important interview, if I had the opportunity to do real reporting, and if I felt comfortable with the situation, on a case-by-case basis, obviously, it's something I'd be eager to do. But I'm not interested in just standing somewhere in a flak jacket to say, `Look everybody, I'm here.'"

Media analysts likened Couric's teleconference, held for television critics and reporters, to news conferences held by politicians and their advisers when they wish to spin political coverage.

"With the networks now in the habit of drawing some of their public relations people from politics, it's not unheard of for them to engage in some of the PR practices that the politicians do, and the expectations game is one of those," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based media think tank.

"How do you measure success as a TV news anchor? Well, one of the first verdicts is going to be from TV critics. And it's not unreasonable to think that you can influence the attitude of TV critics in the same way that you try and influence the attitudes of political writers. If you can persuade the TV critic community that Katie's going to start out slow, but, gosh, she's got a big learning curve, maybe they will be less ready to condemn."

Ratings may provide even swifter judgment.

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