You would have to have been in cave somewhere east of where Osama is hiding out not to know that Katie Couric, late of The Today Show, assumes the news anchor chair at CBS (CBS) on Sept. 5. Clearly, the lords of the Tiffany Network are betting some $15 million a year that the 49-year-old early-morning charmer can translate her 150-watt smile and bubbly self into the savior of a TV network operation—maybe even the entire notion of network news.
Yeah, well don't bet on it. I've got nothing against Katie Couric, who's been my early-a.m. TV companion for most of her 15 years on the show. She's smart, has a nifty way of wheedling news nuggets out of folks who don't want to offer them, and seems to make every minute fly by. But the network news business needs more than just a killer personality—even one with years of top-flight experience. Not even Walter Cronkite on his best day could save the 6 p.m. news.
Just look at the numbers. According to Nielsen, the number of folks tuning in to hear Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, and—soon—Katie has been heading south since the most trusted man in America gave his chair to Dan Rather. Since 1981, the number of folks who tune into the nightly news has declined 48%, or by some 25 million, to about 27 million viewers.
Where are they going? Well, of course, to CNN (TWX), Fox News (FOX), and increasingly to the Internet. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 34% of Internet users get news from the Net every day, compared to 27% in 2004. And you know in which direction that number is headed.
Still, you have to hand it to CBS, which has treated Katie's foray into news reading with all the gusto of a political campaign. On her first week on the job, the network sent her on a whirlwind tour of town hall meetings—"just hearing what people have to say, face to face, how they're getting their news this day and in this media landscape," Katie told media critics not long afterward. Sounds like stumping to me.
Now we're hearing, thanks to The Drudge Report that Cronkite himself will endorse her candidacy—uh introduce her—on her first night. And you also have to applaud Les Moonves, CBS's chief executive and possibly the smartest man in show business. He knows how to get buzz started.
WHEN NOVELTY FADES.
But what can we—and Les Moonves—expect beyond the buzz? Katie will read the news better than you or me—but probably no better than Brian Williams at NBC (GE) or Charlie Gibson, ABC's (DIS)own morning news transplant. And people will tune in to see for themselves. "They'll want to see that she can read the news without falling off the anchor's chair," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. As a result, Katie may get a nice bump in viewing the first week or so.
But soon after Katie peers into our homes on Sept. 5, reality will set in. The novelty will wear off and viewers will start drifting back to the Internet or to cable for the immediacy they have become accustomed to. When was the last time you looked to the 6 p.m. news to get a bead on a big event? And CBS has a decidedly weaker hand than NBC and ABC when it comes to affiliate stations and local news programs that precede their 6 p.m. news.
Katie's only chance of yanking some audience is being a little more exciting. She'll give it that same pizzazz she did when we were all shaking Mr. Sandman from our eyes. The plan, she says, is to show that her broadcast "can maintain the rich tradition and integrity of CBS news but also perhaps offer people something a little bit different that will attract them to our broadcast."
I'm not quite sure what that means, and Couric hasn't given a lot of detail. It sounds like CBS wants to sprinkle some good news among the reports of the dreadful things that are happening in the world today. But they're going to have to do something pretty spectacular to make a real difference in the ratings. The CBS Evening News still badly trails the news shows at NBC and ABC.
The good news, at least for the suits at CBS, is that they have nowhere to go but up. Ad revenues, which had fallen for years at the news shows, have stabilized of late. And maybe Katie can do at her evening gig what she did at her a.m. gig—namely, bring in advertisers. The CBS Evening News generated about $169 million in ad revenues last year, according to The Center for News Media. By contrast Katie and Today colleagues Matt Lauer and Al Roker brought in a cool $571 million in ad buys, the center estimates.
Like just about everywhere out there, I'm pulling for Katie to be the huge success at dinnertime that she was during her breakfast tour. She has paid her dues, having worked her way up from a local reporter in the Washington area and a stint at the Pentagon before her 15 years at Today.
She's a pro. But even pros don't always succeed. A poll conducted this spring by the Associated Press and TV Guide found that 49% of its respondents wanted Katie to keep her morning job, while only 29% said they would like to see her make the jump to CBS's evening news. Any way you slice it, it's going to be tough for the Queen of the Morning to make a difference in the twilight of the evening news.