Couric debuts with new set, new format, sign-off search

`CBS Evening News' puts anchor at center of action

TV Review

September 06, 2006|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,sun television critic

A feature on Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan reported in breathless tabloid fashion by correspondent Lara Logan. An essay by filmmaker Morgan Spurlock in which he decried the lack of civil discourse. The first televised pictures of Suri Cruise, child of actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

And anchorwoman Katie Couric showing lots of leg during a taped, sit-down interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

These offerings made up much of the first telecast of CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, which aired last night. Couric's status as the first female solo anchor of an evening newscast -- and the $60 million that last-place CBS is betting on her -- made the program's debut one of the biggest in TV history. Undoubtedly, it will be among the most discussed as well.

The 49-year-old anchorwoman emphatically articulated a new direction for the network's news operation: Gravitas be darned, Couric seemed to be saying. The new CBS Evening News involves interaction with viewers, a touch of whimsy at the anchor desk, and a conversational style and softer tone that is similar in some ways to the touchy-feely approach favored in local news broadcasts -- or morning network shows like Today, her TV home for 15 years. It is also a formula likely to face harsh criticism from news purists.

Although CBS repeatedly tried to link Couric to a gloried past that includes legendary newsmen Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, network Chairman Leslie Moonves has made it clear in interviews that the newscast can no longer afford to play to journalism's purists. The network with the oldest audience for TV news needs to find a way to attract younger viewers.

Forget the buzz about a redesigned set created to exude elegance and power. Couric's new electric blue and gold set is circular rather than flat; it clearly is built to direct viewers' eyes back to the anchorwoman at its center. She seemingly is surrounded by endless surfaces of glass in which her image is reflected. It is a narcissist's dream.

Make no mistake, Couric presides over the newscast in an easygoing manner. As conversational as her predecessor, Bob Schieffer, could be, Couric is even more casual -- nearly over-the-back fence chatty at times, in fact.

Perched on the side of her shiny desk, she ended the telecast by confiding to viewers that she had not been able to craft a trademark sign off over the summer. So she invited viewers to go online and send in their suggestions.

After showing videos of anchorman sign offs ranging from Murrow and Cronkite to the fictional Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Couric ended her historic broadcast with, "I'm Katie Couric, thank you very much for watching, and I hope to see you tomorrow night."

Moonves has said that he didn't want the old-style "voice of God" approach taken with the new CBS Evening News, and Couric certainly came through in that regard.

Her arrival marks the end of a two-year period of sweeping changes at the network anchor desks that started when Tom Brokaw retired as anchor of the NBC Nightly News in December 2004. Brokaw was succeeded by Brian Williams, whose newscast attracts an audience of 9.05 million viewers and is currently the highest-rated on network TV, according to the most recent Nielsen Media Research figures.

Now with Charles Gibson ensconced as anchor of ABC World News Tonight, and Couric in place at CBS, the new order is finally set.

Since April, when Couric announced her decision to leave NBC's Today show for the CBS anchor desk, speculation has centered on whether the broadcaster who rose to prominence as the "girl next door" has the gravitas to anchor the evening news.

Couric last night didn't seem overly concerned about gravitas. Instead she seemed genuinely focused on communicating to viewers in a way that has never been done by an evening news anchor -- even if that includes showing pictures of Baby Cruise, courtesy of Vanity Fair. (The issue, in which a series of Cruise baby pictures is published, is scheduled to go on sale today, and purists are not going to like that linkage either.)

Couric's first day was not limited to the half-hour spent on the air. She served as host for a seven-minute online preview of the newscast. Titled "First Look: Day One," the report featured Couric in the newsroom interviewing senior producers about what viewers would see on the broadcast.

She also wrote for "Couric & Co.," her new blog at CBSNews. com. "In the little village that is CBS News, you might consider `Couric & Co.' the coffee house on the corner, where something is always brewing," she wrote.

And of her move from the Today show to the CBS anchor desk after 15 years, she wrote, "A boat is always safe in the harbor. But it's not what it was built for. ... So grab an oar. Take a deep breath. And let's get going. Hopefully, we won't all end up like Gilligan."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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