CBS News Hires Ex-CNN Chief To Give a Boost To Katie Couric

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007

No one at CBS News was more intimately involved in helping Katie Couric shape her evening newscast and get it on the air each night than her executive producer, Rome Hartman.

But as the ratings languished and the "CBS Evening News" seemed to drift, the network decided this week to dump Hartman and replace him with hard-charging, high-profile producer Rick Kaplan -- the first public acknowledgment that the newscast and its $15-million-a-year anchor have not lived up to expectations. The deal was sealed Wednesday night when Kaplan had coffee and a two-hour talk at Couric's Manhattan apartment.

"I love Katie. She is a superb journalist," Kaplan, a former president of CNN and MSNBC and onetime executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline," said yesterday. "For me, this whole deal is a no-brainer."

While "Katie could have stopped this from happening if she wanted to," Kaplan said, they have an "extraordinary comfort level" with each other. "I came here because I believe in my soul that Katie is the best" of the anchors, he added.

CBS News President Sean McManus, who made the decision after broaching the possibility with Kaplan over lunch last week, said that "listening to his ideas and his confidence in taking this show, and Katie, to the next level convinced me he was absolutely the best person to do this job. . . . Katie was not involved in the decision [to drop Hartman]. She was certainly consulted with respect to Rick."

Hartman's ouster, six months after Couric's debut, comes days after NBC replaced John Reiss as executive producer of "Nightly News." Although Reiss had asked earlier for a reassignment, the shake-ups reflect the growing intensity of a ratings war in which millions of dollars in advertising revenue are at stake. ABC's "World News" with Charlie Gibson has seized the ratings lead from Brian Williams's NBC broadcast in three of the past four weeks. Gibson drew 9.56 million viewers last week, Williams 9.39 million, and Couric 7.51 million.

The abrupt CBS move -- those involved say Hartman had no inkling he was being replaced until McManus told him after Wednesday's broadcast -- buttresses critics who say he and Couric erred in the way they revamped the "CBS Evening News." They initially added a number of features, including a commentary segment called "Free Speech," but began emphasizing more hard news as internal dissent grew and ratings sagged. Executives now concede they made too many changes too quickly.

There is also an X factor. "Having a woman in the anchor chair is something the audience needs to get used to," Kaplan said. "They will."

Two CBS executives, who asked not to be identified because they were discussing personnel matters, said the network concluded that Kaplan could give Couric more direction and bring a sharper vision to a program that the brass had come to regard as inconsistent. Couric, in a statement, called the 6-foot-7 Kaplan "a big personality with big ideas."

Couric made a huge publicity splash when she left NBC's top-rated "Today" show after 15 years and, in September, assumed the chair that had been held by Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer.

McManus, the CBS Sports president who also took over the news division last year, has repeatedly said it would take a long time for the "Evening News" to climb out of the cellar. But, he said yesterday, "I'm a little less patient in wanting to see some improvement in the ratings."

Kaplan said the deal was cobbled together in 48 hours without the involvement of his agent. He said he sat down with CBS chief executive Les Moonves before meeting with Couric.

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