By Tom Shales
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
A title change would seem to be in order. Maybe "The CBS Evening No-News." Or "The CBS Evening Magazine." Or "30 Minutes."
Whatever it was, Katie Couric did a brisk, engaging job of getting the strange new show off the ground last night as, at long last -- and after one of the most relentless hype hurricanes in history -- she debuted as the first woman to be solo anchor of a major network newscast. K-Day had come at last!
Couric occupied a chair that once belonged to Walter Cronkite and, later, Dan Rather, both of whom did newscasts that were much, much newsier. Yesterday, though, was apparently a no-news day in the opinion of Executive Producer Rome Hartman, the staff and Couric herself, since the half-hour began with a "60 Minutes"-style piece on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The real purpose of this report was to show off Lara Logan, the intensely telegenic reporter who serves as foreign correspondent. She went undercover in Afghanistan, much as Rather had done many many years ago. But as a woman, Logan said, her Taliban hosts "insisted I cover everything but my eyes."
The story was in fact largely about her -- about how dangerous it was to do the story, about what a big, "unprecedented" exclusive it was (Brian Ross seemed to have much the same story on ABC's "World News Tonight" with Charles Gibson) and how she had to tippy-toe away from the camp through a minefield, led by a guide.
Couric, who began the newscast standing up and promoting what was to come, oddly wore a white blazer over a black top and skirt, the blazer buttoned in such a way as to make her look chubby, bursting at the button, which we know she isn't. It was a poor choice, but the lavish newsroom set built as Couric's display case was handsome indeed, gleaming and shiny, with Couric seated eventually at a huge semicircular desk and looking comfortably at home.
From that perch, it appeared, she could cover the world. And when she really does start covering the world, it will be easier to judge her fitness as an anchor. Anchors prove their mettle when guiding viewers through marathon coverage of a crisis, and it is grimly safe to say that time will come. Then Couric will either justify her selection as anchor or make a mockery of it.
Last night, the show simply played to her strengths, chiefly her ability as an interviewer. She had a taped sit-down with liberal columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, who seemed to be trying too hard to "come across" on television, as if he'd just completed TV training.
Suddenly, with no hint at a transition, Couric was talking about executive changes at the Ford Motor Co. and then about the late Steve Irwin, the crocodile expert who died over the weekend when he was attacked underwater by a stingray. These little mini-stories were rammed together with no indication from Couric that she was changing topics. She needs work, and help, at reading off the prompting device and making it clear when the focus is about to shift.
The premiere was too jammed with "new features," as if the producers feared people would give Couric only one night's chance before they ran away to some other option. A segment called "Eye on Your Money" was simply a report by Anthony Mason that proved largely an apologia for big oil. Mason did concede that for all the tribulations the companies have suffered -- hurricane damage and such -- Shell Oil showed a $25 billion profit last year. No tears for them.
Couric was standing again to introduce "something new," which turned out to be the oldest idea in television: Have some well-known or obscure blowhard pop up and do a rant into the camera.
On the first show, it was the overexposed and tiresome bore Morgan Spurlock, who became famous by making a movie in which he ate at McDonald's every day for a month.
How's that for credentials? He carried on about how there is too much arguing and not enough civilized discourse in America, but there was nothing civilized about his piece, which included footage of pro wrestlers battling in the ring.
Spurlock really seemed to be doing a variation on Richard Nixon's unfortunate "Silent Majority" tirade of many long years ago. Couric said that another stale face, that of Rush Limbaugh, would appear in the "free speech" segment Thursday. Oh goody! Set the TiVo now!
Then the show reached its lowest point with an item that Couric had coyly promoted earlier in the day on the CBS Web site: a photograph of Suri Cruise, the previously hidden baby of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. The portrait will be on the cover of Vanity Fair, out today -- so the segment was a shameless plug as well as celebrity trash, the kind of thing better saved for "Entertainment Tonight" and its ilk.
A so-so human-interest piece by Steve Hartman, the schmaltz king, closed the show. Or almost closed it. Gettin' real folksy with viewers, Couric asked them to send in suggestions on how she should sign off the newscast. There was a montage of sign-offs from the past -- including Edward R. Murrow's immortal "Good night, and good luck," even though Murrow never anchored the evening news.
Some people will say that including the image of Murrow on such a frothy, funsy broadcast as the Couric premiere was sacrilege, and that Murrow is spinning in his grave. In fact, if Murrow were going to spin in his grave, he would have started long ago, when "infotainment" first appeared on the TV horizon and newscasters became pop personalities akin to movie stars and actors appearing in sitcoms. Murrow must be all spun out by now. It's been downhill for a long time.
Couric's broadcast did not seem to hasten the decline and fall of TV news, but it didn't offer anything really new, either -- and on its first outing, it didn't offer anything news. A stranger from another planet tuning in the show would have to assume nothing happened in America or the world yesterday except that a photo of Tom Cruise's baby materialized.
Viewers hoping to hate Couric during the long, long countdown to Katie Day had to be disappointed, but so would those expecting a revelation. Coming weeks will tell both how Couric wears in the new assignment, and whether she'll lure younger viewers to a broadcast that has mainly appealed to men who get up to use the bathroom too often at night.
One wants to wish her well on the basis of her tremendous charm, but opening night left acres and acres of room for improvement.