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Out of the Spotlight, Newsmen Still Shine

(Discovery Channel)

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Koppel plans six or so programs a year, and Discovery has launched a major promotional campaign (slogan: "Not Just Another Pretty Face") -- the kind that Koppel says he "begged" for at "Nightline." He hopes to draw 1 million to 2 million viewers, but asks: "Will we get a credible number? If we don't, are they going to feel so disappointed that the support will wane? I don't know. We'll find out."

No matter what happens, Koppel will find gainful employment. But this may be an important test of whether cable channels whose identities are not tied to news can fill part of the void left by the fragmenting of the broadcast network audience. Discovery, HBO, Court TV, A&E, Bravo, the History Channel and the Sundance Channel have occasionally aired important programs and documentaries amid their niche programming, and this can provide a new way of reaching viewers with well-crafted substance. But original reporting is expensive, and if such efforts bomb, it's always easier to put on movies, dramas and sports shows.

Koppel, for one, is struck by the major networks' determination to stick with prime-time entertainment.

"Here we have the government losing sleep over an existential threat, one that would change our way of life forever," he says. "But the notion that we can actually scrub a highly rated entertainment program to have a serious discussion of that, it's just not going to happen. Them days is over."

Changing of the Guard

Katie Couric makes her much-chronicled CBS debut tomorrow after having gotten an on-air blessing from Bob Schieffer.

On Schieffer's last appearance as the "CBS Evening News" anchor Thursday, he strolled onto the new set just constructed for Couric and welcomed her to the neighborhood. She narrated a piece about his career, including a dark-haired Schieffer covering the national miniature golf championship in Rockville and, in a never-aired outtake, asking quizzically: " Who wants more pizazz in the standup?" Schieffer choked up on camera while recounting the support of his wife and mother.

At a Manhattan party that night, CBS President Les Moonves drew cheers when he called Schieffer "possibly the man who saved CBS News."

Schieffer, who held the job for 18 months and will continue as a commentator, boosted "Evening News" ratings by 300,000 viewers this season, narrowing the gap with the other newscasts.

Unlike Couric's situation, Schieffer says, "there were no expectations for me. Nobody thought I was going to be here for very long. But with her, the expectations are so great that she's got to jump over the moon or somebody's going to write that they're very disappointed. That's unfair."

CBS executives acknowledge that sky-high expectations -- fueled by a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign that includes Couric's face on just about every New York City bus -- could be a problem. They say they are being realistic in cautioning that ratings progress tends to be slow and that Couric's newscast should be judged over months, not days or weeks.

The revamped program has just hired its own historian, author Douglas Brinkley, and has taped outside contributors delivering 20 possible commentaries for its new "Free Speech" segment (including a couple by Washington Post op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson).

One lingering mystery: Will the first newscast use a taped introduction -- and implicit endorsement -- from legendary predecessor Walter Cronkite? CBS executives are undecided. One big-name guest who will definitely show up (on tape) is President Bush, who granted Couric an interview for a 9/11 anniversary special that will air Wednesday. Four nights later, the new anchor will make her first appearance on "60 Minutes" with a report on the World Trade Center site.

Plagiarism Watch

The Salt Lake Tribune fired reporter Shinika Sykes last week after discovering substantial similarities between her story on the cost of a music festival at the University of Utah and one in the school's student paper the day before. Sykes told the Tribune that she spoke to everyone she had quoted.


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