Correction to This Article
A photo caption with an Aug. 15 Style article about Katie Couric misidentified the television network where she will become anchor of the nightly newscast next month. It is CBS, not NBC.

Up Close And Too Personal

Katie Couric says she aims to add a commentary segment and more positive stories to the newscast, but
Katie Couric says she aims to add a commentary segment and more positive stories to the newscast, but "it's not going to be smiley-face happy news." (CBS)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

NEW YORK, Aug. 14

She is already the most heavily scrutinized, psychoanalyzed and gossiped-about anchor in network history, and she hasn't yet uttered a single "good evening" on a CBS newscast.

Katie Couric's wardrobe has been analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, her makeup assailed in USA Today, her dating life examined by Parade magazine, her fitness for nightly news duty debated by columnists, cable combatants, bloggers and bloviators.

"I'm really focused on work and trying to tune the other stuff out, because it could potentially drive you absolutely out of your mind," Couric says in a conference room down the hall from the new set being constructed for her Sept. 5 debut.

When she takes the helm of the "CBS Evening News," Couric's challenge to NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Charlie Gibson will mark the first such three-way showdown since Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings initially went at it in the early 1980s. But the media landscape has shifted dramatically since then, leaving this trio fighting for a shrinking slice of the audience and increasingly taking their battle online.

Because Couric is both the first woman to serve as a solo nightly news anchor and a big-time celebrity, some are casting her debut as the biggest event of the fall television season. After 15 years as a popular morning personality at NBC, she is armed with some new ideas -- including a regular soapbox segment for advocates and activists-- to jazz up an evening news format that sometimes seems set in concrete.

After conducting town meetings in a half-dozen cities last month, Couric concluded that "people are hungry" for more positive stories. She is, for example, working on a piece about an Alexandria foundation that teaches juvenile delinquents how to build boats and helps them get high school equivalency degrees.

"Sometimes when you watch the evening news, it's all gloom and doom -- and some of it has to be, because the world is a complicated and pretty scary place right now," says Couric, 49. "But there has to be a place for more hopeful stories."

But, she adds, "it's not going to be smiley-face happy news."

What viewers want is a constant topic of discussion among the staffs of the evening newscasts, which still reach a combined 25 million viewers but have seen their share of the total audience gradually decline for nearly three decades. Whether Couric can revive interest in the genre is the focus of considerable debate.

Williams, who has occupied first place since succeeding Brokaw at "NBC Nightly News" 21 months ago, calls her a "great communicator" who "brings to the job an already established personal relationship with millions of viewers. She will be formidable competition, no ifs, ands or buts. . . . Like any product launch in the marketing world, an introduction is going to get sampling. I think that dies down rather quickly."

But Williams, 47, sees no need to tinker with his newscast, saying: "We're the established industry leader."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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