Couric's still standing

She sees hope after two often-rocky years at CBS

August 24, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,

Next week, Katie Couric will celebrate her second anniversary as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Given the nature of that tenure, however, "celebrate" might not be quite the right word.

"Can't win for losing," is the phrase Couric used to describe parts of the past two years in an interview last week. "It's been, quite candidly, pretty tough some of the time for me in my new job," she says.

After a cosmic build-up in the summer of 2006 and a huge, first-night tune-in of about 13 million viewers to see the popular star of NBC's Today show assume the chair once held by Walter Cronkite, the wheels quickly started to come off Couric's new show. Viewers fled, and the show's executive producer was fired after only six months. Yet, the slide continued.

In April, with an audience that had shrunk to 5.6 million viewers, reports surfaced that Couric wanted out of her $15-million-a-year contract and would be parting ways with CBS by January. Both Couric and Rick Kaplan, executive producer of CBS Evening News, emphatically deny the reports.

So, why is the 51-year-old newscaster now talking about her rocky ride at CBS? Because she and network executives think they finally have some good news to share.

Timing matters, too. As the new order of network anchors convenes in Denver for its first national convention, the talents of Couric, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson will be on prime-time display starting tomorrow for eight nights across the next two weeks. CBS is presenting Couric in a multimedia showcase that includes a nightly Web cast - hoping to build a little ratings momentum going into the new Nielsen season that starts Sept. 21.

The good news: Couric's broadcast is starting to make some modest audience gains. In Baltimore, for example, the CBS Evening News grew by about 2.2 ratings points or 28,400 viewers from May 2007 to May 2008. The pattern extends to such other mid-sized markets as San Diego; Hartford, Conn.; New Orleans; Pittsburgh; and Kansas City, Mo.

None is New York or Los Angeles, and the gains are not huge, but analysts say that in this era of eroding audiences for all traditional media, a gain of that size in a highly competitive, East Coast market like Baltimore is noteworthy.

"Katie Couric is actually getting ratings - there's a headline," says Douglas Gomery, University of Maryland media economist. "But, seriously, CBS and Couric should be pleased. Who wouldn't take an audience gain of 28,400 viewers these days and feel good about it?"

"To see us gaining and making strides in some of these major markets is wonderful news," Couric says. "I've always felt proud of the broadcast even in the early days when it was so criticized for certain elements. I'm one of these people who thinks it's OK to take chances and to try things. ... I always thought even the things that weren't well-received were noble efforts in trying to evolve the broadcast. So, the fact that we're doing well is very gratifying."

Couric has taken considerable risks with her persona the past two years in an effort to find a new multimedia model for network anchors in the digital age. Brian Williams, of NBC Nightly News, has developed by far the most successful voice as a blogger, even as he led his newscast to neck-and-neck No. 1 on-air ratings with Charles Gibson and ABC World News. But Couric seems game for almost anything in new media - from her video posts on the Couric & Co. blog, to the Web cast she will anchor starting tomorrow.

"I think one of the most exciting aspects of my coming to this job was the chance to spread my wings on the Internet," the University of Virginia graduate says. "I think anybody who hasn't been living under a rock for the last 10 years understands how news consumption is changing dramatically and how the Internet is playing an increasingly important role. ... I'm a naturally interactive person in terms of my personal style, and we're trying to reach out to folks."

One of her most intriguing efforts is found on Couric's YouTube channel, where the camera is allowed to capture her in a more informal way.

"On the Internet, it's a much different sensibility. They want it a little more raw, less filtered, less varnished. ... And I think that plays to my strengths. It's sort of more of a Today show sensibility in terms of being relaxed or being able to make a mistake or laugh at yourself or ask an off-the-wall question. ... I always thought that, hopefully, I could be a successful bridge between traditional media and the Internet, just in terms of the way I communicate in a more casual way."

While analysts generally applaud Couric's commitment to new media, they are also largely reluctant to make too much of it until her old media issues are resolved.

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