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Goodbye to the Eye? Why This Couric Flap May Be The Beginning of the End For CBS News

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This has been a big week for news about Katie Couric and CBS News. First there was the NYT report that CBS was considering outsourcing newsgathering to CNN. That was big news — until the WSJ reported that Couric would likely leave the anchor chair before the expiration of her five-year contract, likely after the 2008 election. The WSJ also reported that alternative to the anchor job might be taking over for Larry King at CNN; today, both the NYT and LAT report that negotiations for Couric's graceful exit have at least been discussed, if not begun, and that she was offered (and declined) the chance to step in and save CBS's foundering early show.

For all of these reports there are varying degrees of denials: CBS denied that there were plans for Couric's early departure; CBS and CNN denied the newsgathering rumor; CNN denied that King's spot was up for grabs (and indeed his contract may be extended); as for the CBS morning show report, yesterday I asked a spokesperson for CBS News if Couric had indeed been offered that option, which was referred to another spokesperson who claimed no knowledge of such an offer. That was before today, when it was published in two places.

But really, we don't need confirmations or even exclusive reports to extrapolate from some basic facts here: We know that CBS News is a distant third in the ratings, struggling in an industry that it itself endangered. We know that newsgathering is expensive — and we know that Katie Couric is, too. All of this is why these reports make sense, because they represent different ways in which a struggling operation might try to survive. They also represent why, amidst the mutterings about how the evening news is doomed, CBS will clearly be the first to go.

The Ratings, And Then Some

It's not just about being in last place — heck, someone's got to be, and CBS News chief Sean McManus has always said that he expected this to be a long-haul climb. The problem, of course, is how far in last place she is. The ratings have dropped under Couric, even while Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson are jockeying for position light-years in front of her, sometimes by as much as 3 million viewers more than her, each. Sure, she's been buoyed by the election but everyone has — the fact remains that, as I pointed out last fall, this year's high-water mark numbers are last-year's nadirs (back in Feb. 2007, falling below 7 million was shocking. Now, breaking 7 million is the shocker — something Couric's newscast did early on in primary season, but which was eroded over the next few months. Last week, her broadcast clocked 5.9 million viewers — higher than her lowest-ever number of 5.46 million in the week of Sept. 3rd, but still not the kind of numbers CBS is used to, or needs).

And in the meantime, running a news division costs money. The CNN deal made sense in that respect, though it more than anything else signaled the beginning of the end, because it would mean offloading the "news" part of "CBS News" to an outside contractor and fronting stories by people like Candy Crowley and Dana Bash and Jim Acosta. Nothing wrong with that — one industry insider called Crowley "the best writer in the field right now" — but it's still outsourcing your bread and butter to your cable competitors. Whatever proportion would be decided upon, however the work would be allocated, it would still transfer growth from CBS to CNN. Why would CBS ever hire another correspondent? Why would CBS ever pay for an investigation in the field? Again, nothing wrong with a merger in the name of efficiency but it would signal a future for the CBSNews logo, and that's about it.

That's just one plan; another would be easing out Couric. That would free up $15 million per year (or however much was left over after the settlement and probable contractual guarantees/penalties kicked in). Still, you can hire a lot of staffers with that kind of money (or, at least, afford to keep them on). The report that CBS and Couric were contemplating a parting after the election was a jolt but hardly a surprise — that's been the chatter for a while, lingering long after Gail Shister bluntly called it last April. That was the first of a number of reports undermining CBS News from the inside, with disgruntled staffers at all levels signaling their unhappiness by griping to the media (recall this summer's New York profile, where a staffer said that people were "pissed about Katie because she's soaking up the money... I can't get a raise because Katie Couric is failing on the Evening News? That's huge.") Meanwhile, let's not forget that all these stories came from leaks — leaks which the NYT's Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg report might cause Couric to step down in a matter of weeks.

All of this is part of the damaging Couric-at-CBS rap sheet — the plagiarized blog post under her name; the leaked Rather-mocking "tart" footage (which may have made her seem likable, but was surely not released for that reason); the online video that resurrected the debunked Obama madrassa rumors; the slap over the sputum (let alone the fact that she was surprised by the word sputum, meaning not only did she not write her own scripts but seemed not even to read them). True, the newscast has stabilized since then, but the memories linger on — and so do the middling ratings.

It All Comes Down To Moonves

All of which is why pretty much no one was surprised by reports of a possible early exit, for her own sake and for the sake of CBS. Presumably, Couric would be fine — every examination of her situation at CBS points out that she made her bones with skilled, watchable interviews and that her winning personality was what propelled her to the top at "Today."

But what about CBS? Even with the savings from cutting Couric loose, is it too late to make a dent? Does anyone really think that bringing back Bob Schieffer or importing Harry Smith or Russ Mitchell or Scott Pelley will suddenly make the difference? Former NBC News and PBS president Lawrence K. Grossman doesn't — he told the NYT that it's a sign of the "the decline and fall of network news." Well, we know at least that it's a tough environment for news right now (see cuts at ABC and NBC), but assuming it'll hang on for a few more years yet, CBS still hasn't done itself any favors so far. The emphasis on Couric has come at the expense of promoting other correspondents (I remember noting with surprise the absence of Lara Logan from Couric's maiden broadcast from Iraq, and the lack of mention of Logan in her blog posts before it) — indeed, in the names that have started being floated, Logan is the only "new" face that's come up since names were being bandied about before Couric took the job. Even with a strong team (including CNN-friendly Jeff Greenfield), the network hasn't done a great job of building a star system around anyone but Couric. And I've written in this space before about how CBSNews.com seems to have missed opportunities online.

So, does all this mean that CBS News will never recover? Who knows — but consider also that the guy at the top, Les Moonves, isn't a news guy, he's a showbiz guy. He's the figure who's been lurking in the background throughout all this — it was his drive to recruit Katie (McManus inherited her), and then, when things started going really south, it was Moonves who threw her subtly to the wolves when he told New York mag that he took no responsibility for the program's failure ("Nope. I really don't"), and he was one of the four in that secret meeting with Couric to discuss her future, i.e. her departure. If she goes, ultimately, it's got to be Moonves who believes in the "CBS Evening News" to start the process all over again — after Rather, after Schieffer, after John Roberts and Mika Brzezinski and everyone else who wasn't good enough before he decided his star had to be Couric, and the star-cross'd imbroglio began. It's Moonves who will ultimately have to decide that it's worth the money and the stress and the time to do it all over again, for the sake of a sputtering half-hour per day of news in an all-but-obsolete form. Any of you think he'll be up for it?


Rebecca Dana: CBS News, Katie Couric Are Likely to Part Ways
[WSJ]
Matea Gold: Couric seen as discontented at CBS [LAT]
Carter & Steinberg: Couric's Fate Was Topic A in CBS Suite [NYT]

Related:
Michelle Greppi: Couric and CBS: 'Let's Stay Friends'
[TV Week]
Ryan Tate: The Rise And Fall Of Katie Couric [Gawker]

Related in Speculation:
Howard Kurtz: Tough Question For CBS: Who'll Follow Couric? [WaPo]
Filling the Anchor Chair if Couric Exits CBS [TV Guide]