CBS Makes Change at Struggling Newscast

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 8, 2007; 1:32 AM

NEW YORK -- CBS News on Thursday is expected to fire the executive producer of Katie Couric's struggling "CBS Evening News" broadcast and appoint former CNN and MSNBC president Rick Kaplan to the job.

Kaplan will replace Rome Hartman, who has been doing the job since before Couric began at CBS last September, according to sources with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A spokeswoman for CBS News declined comment on Wednesday evening. Kaplan, reached at home, also declined to comment.

The newscast has been a distant third in the ratings behind ABC and NBC. During last month's pivotal ratings "sweeps" period, Couric's average of 7.6 million viewers was 6 percent down from what Bob Schieffer recorded in February 2006.

More troubling to many who watched it was the newscast's apparent confusion in direction, driving viewers away from an anchor given a multi-million dollar commitment to jump from NBC's "Today" show.

CBS' shift comes less than a week after NBC News announced that the executive producer of "Nightly News," John Reiss, was leaving. Longtime ratings leader NBC and anchor Brian Williams have been sliding in the ratings as ABC's "World News" with Charles Gibson has won for three of the past four weeks.

Before moving into senior management, Kaplan won 34 Emmy Awards as a producer at ABC News. He worked there with Paul Friedman, currently a key deputy to CBS News President Sean McManus. A large, opinionated man with a booming voice, Kaplan was also a good friend of President Clinton.

He led CNN's domestic operations from 1997 to 2000 as the cable network began to lose audience to the growing Fox News Channel. After teaching at Harvard and briefly returning to ABC, he ran MSNBC from 2004 until leaving last summer, sharpening its programming and setting the stage for modest ratings gains.

Couric took over from Schieffer shortly after Labor Day last year and came in with a mandate to try and shake up an evening news format that differs only slightly among the three networks and hasn't changed dramatically in years. For her first two weeks, Couric led in the ratings. But she hasn't returned there since.

At first, the broadcast emphasized longer, prepared pieces with less focus on breaking news; Hartman came to the evening news from "60 Minutes." Couric's talent as an interviewer was showcased and a regular feature, "Free Speech," invited outside commentary from well-known people like Rush Limbaugh as well as average Americans.

But the commentary bombed and was shelved after two months. Couric's interviews have also been de-emphasized after some were criticized for running too long.

The show has gradually shifted more toward a traditional breaking newscast, but critics say it would often miss stories. Many in the industry believed too many people were offering input and there wasn't a clear sense of who was in charge.

"The lesson of the last six months is that it's very difficult to reinvent the wheel," said Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who monitors the content of broadcast evening newscasts.

CBS News is owned by CBS Corp.

© 2007 The Associated Press