By Tom Shales
Thursday, January 29, 2009
How about a big hand for the little lady? Just don't break out the Dom Perignon quite yet. For nearly two years, Katie Couric has been also-running and suffering a merciless press pummeling for her anchorship of "The CBS Evening News," but now there are signs that show an uptick in viewers for a newscast that had a lock on third place long before Couric took it over.
"I was beginning to think only my parents and my brother were watching," Couric joked late yesterday from New York, where she was putting the finishing touches on a special Wednesday prime-time edition of the "Evening News" as well as her regular nightly broadcast.
"It would be great to be Number 1 or Number 2 and have people write nice pieces about me, I suppose," Couric said. "But I really don't think about the ratings. I just want to do good work for the people who are watching." There are indeed "millions" of those every night, as she says, but CBS would definitely like there to be more.
Lately, Couric is almost as inescapable in the media as Rod Blagojevich -- hosting a Grammy special Feb. 4 and securing the first interview with hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger for "60 Minutes" on Feb. 8, in addition to her one-time prime-time newscast.
If Couric stands a chance of elevating the newscast to second or first place in the nightly ratings, one reason may be that she's finally the right anchor for the times. The times they are a-changin', of course (change is in the air, in case you haven't heard) but the times they are also a-terrible -- economic catastrophe, renewed tension in the Mideast and terrorists still waving swords at the United States.
Not simply because she is a woman, Couric has a warmer, more benevolent presence than her two competitors; she brought to the program nearly 16 years of goodwill from doing "Today" and becoming America's sweetheart, or very close to it. And that goodwill is still there.
Perhaps viewers find bad news less discomforting and sleep-depriving as Couric gives it to them. It's news you can warm up to.
That doesn't mean she tries to sugarcoat or prettify grim realities. She has proved her toughness time and again. But "The CBS Evening News" may be a more hospitable, welcoming sort of place than its competitors. It's naive to think that viewers choose their news anchor based solely on strict journalistic credentials, though Couric's do seem to be in order, whatever the Katie haters may say.
She was very much the activist-anchor in the prime-time version of "Evening News" that aired last night in a suicide slot opposite "American Idol." Couric reported Part 1 of an "exclusive" shocker series about domestic violence committed against spouses and girlfriends by troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. She gave this troubling story not "a woman's touch" but the attention of a good reporter. The segment was labeled "Katie Couric Investigates" to help raise her profile even higher.
NBC's Brian Williams and his nightly newscast continue to score an emphatic first place in the Nielsens, with about 10.1 million viewers, followed by Charles Gibson and ABC with 9.1 million and Couric and CBS at 7.2 million. But Couric's numbers are up about 5 percent over the same period as last year, CBS says. The good news for Couric may quell, if only briefly, the persistent rumors that she's on the way out at CBS. Last April, in a report headlined "CBS News, Katie Couric Are Likely to Part Ways," the Wall Street Journal predicted Couric's imminent ouster -- "well before her contract expires in 2011." There were rumors that Couric, for all those years the star anchor on "Today," might move to CNN and replace Larry King, or begin her own daytime talk show a la Oprah Winfrey.
In recent weeks, that drumbeat has subsided and been replaced by another. America's first solo female anchor of a network evening newscast came off the political year looking rosy, almost as celebrated in her realm as Barack Obama was in his. Couric's interview with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was probably the best of the campaign -- the most revealing, the most quoted. It was the result, Couric says, of a concerted effort to focus on "distinguished campaign coverage," and longer pieces.
"I am cognizant of it," she says of the recent rash of pro-Couric reports, as opposed to dump-Couric stories. "I think if it's true, the reason is partially that people are getting used to me in this role. And I've become increasingly comfortable in it."
Asked if there might be any "cosmetic" reasons for the change, she laughs. "Yes, I think it's all because of my short hair," she says. (She debuted the look Dec. 1.) "Actually, I think Charlie Gibson is parting his a little differently -- but nobody seems to notice."
Why did it take two years (after an initial, short-lived leap out of the starting gate) for Couric even to begin to catch on? News viewers are notoriously set in their ways and slow to change, insiders often say. It's also been suggested that the newscast was "too different" when it was remodeled for Couric and presented on a TV tray to America. Perhaps CBS should have given Couric a calmer launch and introduced changes more gradually, to make the transformation less jarring. Rick Kaplan, the executive producer hired in March 2007 to "fix" the broadcast, says, "Some of the things they tried weren't maybe the wisest things to try -- but God bless 'em for trying."
Couric has never done as bad a job in the anchor chair as boisterous detractors commonly claimed, though she has sometimes seemed constrained by it, restless to get out in the field. Now more than ever, the newscast is smart, solid and imaginatively produced -- and Couric finally appears in her role as she needs to be. She is careful to credit the stellar roster of CBS correspondents for any improvement in ratings and she also has praise for Kaplan.
Kaplan says Couric is more comfortable not only on-camera but behind the scenes, helping to shape the style and content of "the broadcast," as it is still reverentially called. She says, "I've learned there are things I can control, and I do," on-screen and off.
"As managing editor, she's an important part of the program," Kaplan says. "She's much more comfortable weighing in now" with opinions on what to cover and how. As for her on-air performance, "I think her political coverage was terrific, and not just Palin" -- though Kaplan does say of that interview, "They'll be talking about the interview in 25 years, like they talk about Roger Mudd's interview with Teddy Kennedy" in 1979. Kennedy's inability to tell Mudd exactly why he wanted to be president was believed to have effectively ended his campaign.
There are, though, viewers who find her not fresh but way too cute and cuddly. When she first ascended to the anchor chair, Couric herself seemed to be trying too hard to pour on the artificial gravitas. Kaplan says the program is now designed to "let Katie be Katie."
She still has a problem that has plagued her from the start: She sometimes stumbles over words when reading them off the prompting device. A Couric admirer concedes it's not something she does well but that reading off a prompter has nothing to do with journalism. At the same time, it's a basic requirement for the job; there are nights, says one insider, "when that's really all an anchor does."
"I know how hard she works," says Rome Hartman, the executive producer whom Kaplan replaced. He agrees that Couric's career is on an upswing. "She works very, very hard, and now she's starting to see some benefit from that. She's real, and she comes across as real on the air."
Couric concedes that at times the hostile press has gotten to her. "I've always been a pretty happy person, but there have been days when it's been somewhat discouraging to me professionally," she says. "I just put on blinders and do my job and try not to let it bother me.
"I always feel that quality wins out in the end."