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."
Gibson, 63, who took over second-place "World News" in June after Bob Woodruff was sidelined by injuries suffered in Iraq and ABC reassigned co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, has said the showdown should be focused on news, not personalities.
"I believe competition is good for all of us," says Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News," who calls Couric and Williams tough rivals. "It brings more attention to the evening news, which lots of people determined some time ago was going to go away. Charlie's move to the evening and Katie's move to the evening give the lie to that. The only challenge we've had is to make sure they know he's on in the evening now."
Public fascination with the anchors has reached the point that Gallup recently polled about them, as if they were presidential candidates. Couric led the trio with a 60 percent approval rating but, with 23 percent disapproving, had the highest negatives as well. Gibson got positive marks from 55 percent of those surveyed and thumbs down from 8 percent, while 47 percent approved of Williams and 7 percent disapproved.
CBS has done its part to stoke the interest in Couric as she takes the reins from Bob Schieffer, who will return to his Washington job after having boosted the "Evening News" ratings during his 18 months as Rather's interim replacement. The network has launched a promotional campaign and tapped Academy Award-winning composer James Horner to write new theme music for the broadcast.
CBS News President Sean McManus says he sees a media "feeding frenzy" over Couric's new role and is surprised by "this unbelievable thirst for information" about her life. "It's a good thing that everyone is talking about the 'CBS Evening News' right now," he says. "The downside is that people are going to be so quick to jump to conclusions after one broadcast. Some things are going to work and others aren't going to work."
One of those elements is the new commentary segment, dubbed "Free Speech," which will give a 90-second platform to outsiders -- some prominent, some not -- and will also include a weekly essay by Schieffer.
"People are sick of the lack of civil discourse," Couric says, with guests "screaming and interrupting each other and trying to stay on message and berating the other person. They want us to get away from sound bites from inside the Beltway and roll up our sleeves and hear from real people."
On immigration, Couric says, CBS might interview a restaurant owner about illegal immigrants or a recent emigre from Guatemala. "Sometimes in recent years there's been such an effort to bend over backwards to placate both sides of the political aisle, and that on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that approach has left people a little bit cold," she says. "Sometimes they want more analysis and fact-finding and critical thinking."
On the other hand . . . one planned segment will also feature author Nora Ephron expounding on plastic surgery, a subject of her new book. "They're not all going to be super-heavy," Couric says.
Executive Producer Rome Hartman describes the changes as evolutionary. "People watching the first night will know it's a different broadcast, but it's not going to be outside the tradition or form of the 'CBS Evening News,' " he says. "It's not going to be one of these radical remakes."
CBS executives are trying to tamp down expectations of a dramatic boost for their last-place newscast. "The ratings movement might be slow and very gradual," McManus says. "Moving the needle takes a long time, I don't care who your anchor is."
Despite her years of experience interviewing presidents and world leaders on the "Today" show, Couric has faced skepticism rooted in her singing, dancing, cooking and other morning high jinks -- even though press reports about Gibson rarely mention the lighter shtick he did during 19 years on "Good Morning America."
"She's America's cutie pie," says Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "She's bringing star power to a job that has been a black hole in terms of losing viewers. She's a devil to people who think TV news is losing its soul, and an angel to people who think TV news needs shaking up."
Couric's presence will be felt beyond the anchor desk that, as press reports frequently note, was once occupied by Walter Cronkite. She is already working on two pieces for "60 Minutes," one of which is related to Sept. 11. She will host a prime-time documentary on the fifth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks the night after her debut. She plans to appear daily on CBS Radio and blog at least once a week for the network's Web site, fielding questions "if people have a beef with us. It just adds to the transparency we're trying to promote. We just want to let viewers in a little bit on the process of how a newscast is put together and what decisions we make."
In that regard, CBS is a step behind NBC, where Williams has been writing a daily blog since last year, and ABC, where Gibson anchors a 15-minute afternoon webcast that was downloaded nearly 8 million times in June. CBS recently cut a deal with the online site WebMD to contribute to medical segments.
With the average age of evening news watchers about 60, and the total number of viewers having dropped by half since 1980, network executives see the Internet as a new forum for reaching younger people accustomed to watching news and video online.
"It's easy for people our age to dismiss a generation with a broad brush," Couric says. But, she adds, it would be nice if more younger viewers knew "as much about the state of the country as they know about the state of Britney Spears's marriage."
Couric's life may not draw as much attention as Spears's marriage, but it is surely dissected more fervently than those of most journalists. That is in part because of her celebrity status and in part because she often shared personal experiences with the "Today" audience -- particularly after the 1998 death of her husband, Jay Monahan, turned Couric into a crusader and fundraiser for cancer-related causes. With a salary of $15 million a year, she moves easily among Manhattan's jet set.
Couric, who has two teenage daughters, sparked a debate after saying in May that as a single mother she might not be willing to travel with U.S. forces in Iraq. The entertainment show "Access Hollywood" later recycled the quote, erroneously, as applying to whether Couric would have gone to Israel to cover its war with Hezbollah. She says such matters would have to be decided on a case-by-case basis, but she is not apologetic about hesitating to parachute into any war zone.
"I'm not saying I'm going to be totally blowing off my family," says Couric. "That's a very important role in my life, that I'm a mother."
Asked why her comments generated so much attention, she says: "Probably there's still a lot of consternation in this country about people trying to balance work and family. . . . It's a sticky wicket. People applauded the fact that I was going to put my [foot] down at some point and say no.
"If it's going to advance the story -- if I get an interview with an important figure in said hot spot -- obviously I want to go. Do I want to go just to put on a flak jacket and front a news show? Not necessarily. Viewers are smart. They understand when someone really needs to be there and when it's more of a show."
Couric, who left "Today" at the end of May, sounds a bit impatient to get on with it, telling reporters on a conference call Monday: "It's been an out-of-body experience to watch these major news events unfold in my pajamas." But in the interview in the first-floor conference room, she cautions against the idea of a personal transformation.
"I don't want to lose who I am, in terms of how I communicate with people," she says. "I'm not going to become a different person. The downside of all the attention is to suggest I'm going to single-handedly save anything. I'm just going to try to be a contributor with a great group of people who are already in place."