As we approach the end of the first year of "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," it is appropriate to look back at an exciting story that has all the ingredients of a long-running TV news soap opera. "As The Katie Show Turns."
The Couric Era began with anchor Dan Rather making a splash of himself in his zeal for being first with a story. As you recall, Hurricane Dan was blown out the door due to circumstances beyond his control. Rather's producers had failed to recognize the documents regarding George W. Bush's Vietnam War service in the Air National Guard featured in his reporting on "60 Minutes" and the nightly news were composed on a typewriter using a typeface not available until long after the service might, or might not, have taken place. The most famous typewriter since Alger Hiss and his Woodstock damaged Rather's credibility.
The launch September 18 of the all-new, improved "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" was hailed by the network as the biggest thing since the invention of sliced bread. For months "America's Sweetheart," as she had been known for 17 years on the "Today" show, was sent around the nation on "a listening tour," as if she was running for political office. (It was engineered by the consultant who had done the same thing for Hillary Clinton in the 2001 senatorial campaign).
CBS honcho Les Moonves added to the excitement by bragging about his shrewdness in executing a "Kiss Me Kate" contract, which reportedly paid Couric $15 million a year (some said it was closer to $22 million), more than a cost of living increase above the existing pay scale for overpaid anchors.
The problem with a salary like that, even though it might be necessary with the high costs of hair spray and nannies for her children, is that it leads to high expectations. All this was compounded by CBS flacks promoting her as if she was the second coming of Edward R. Murrow. " See it now " was emblazoned on New York City bus sides and on wall posters outside Murrow's former headquarters, the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan, lest anyone missed the point.
Were they kidding? Katie Couric is no Edwina Murrow. The hallowed ghost of Murrow, who is said to still haunt the halls of the Broadcast Center, was either laughing or crying.
"The CBS Evening News" made news in May, recording the smallest audience for the network's premiere newscast (6.05 million viewers) since Nielsen began tracking evening news shows in 1987. It was no surprise. Since it's debut last September, "The CBS Evening News Without Dan Rather or Bob Schieffer" had been going down so fast in the ratings it was getting the bends.
"Her broadcast needs time to catch on," explained CBS News veteran Scott Pelley, who was on the short list for the evening news job last year. Patience, he urged.
It's turning out just the opposite. The more people see the show, apparently, the less they seem to like it.
The anemic numbers for the Katie Couric news, down from 13.5 million the debut week in September 2006, must have surprised -- stunned is a better word -- the CBS executives who thought making Katie Couric the first solo anchor woman in the history of network evening news would be, at last, the answer to all its previous ratings problems.
How could we have made such a mistake, CBS top management should have been asking itself? One clue may be Moonves. When basking in the glow of hiring Couric away from hated rival NBC, he proudly said everything he knew about the news he had learned from his girlfriend, and now wife, Julie Chen, the star of "The Early Show" and "Big Brother." Chen's other major contribution to TV journalism was being the first to use, and make her own, the phrase "But first."
In the first shot of what Moonves called "a news revolution," he said people didn't want "to hear the voice of God, anymore."
Apparently they didn't want to hear the voice of the girl next door, either.
What had happened also puzzled Katie. In an attack of public soul-searching, she sat for a widely discussed profile in New York magazine in July. She agonized over what was turning out to be a wrong career move. "Oh, my god, what did I do?"
For seventeen years, her people were telling her how great she is, how amazing she is, how the world lives and breathes by her very appearance, and words. In an introspective mood frame of mind, she spilled the beans for the first time in the profile about what had gone wrong. She didn't think it was her fault, even though all about her were blaming her.
What her critics overlooked is that the CBS news division had totally imploded before she came on board. She went to a third place news division that had been in third place for what seemed like the last 100 years. They had already fired their star anchor, the network news division president, all their top producers and investigative staff. (Moonves had initiated a house cleaning of mostly veteran Ratherites, so he could hire more younger people at lower salaries. At least 10 evening news correspondents and producers had fallen on their swords).
Poor Katie walked into a news show that was in chaos after the George Bush military career document fiasco. The crack CBS management thought if they put the right blazer on her, she's going to get all the ratings back that had kept them in third place, actually for the last ten years? The level of expectation was just stupid.
You would think that someone in the room would have said it doesn't matter what kind of blazer she wears. We've got a shitty news division; we're in third place for a reason. Whether we perch her on the edge of the desk or make her stand on her head, we've got a terrible news division-that's the problem. We've got a crappy show. Who needs it?
What was happening at the CBS evening news was like seeing a picture of the Titanic. The front end is already under water, and they fly in a new captain. Probably not going to do that well.
In launching the Katie Couric experiment, Moonves had said that "now is not the time for evolution in news but revolution." As the Che Guevara or Patty Hearst of the Revolution, Couric announced the trouble with the evening news is that it was Newzak. She and her people wanted a new news music, something completely different we could dance to.
For the revolution, Katie brought in her own band of guerrilla journalists. Her entourage from the "Today Show," five staffers in charge of quality control, oversaw every journalistic basic, including hair and make up people, one of whom reportedly was furious that CBS didn't get her a first class ticket to Amman, on assignment making Katie look her best for an interview of King Abdullah of Jordan, which didn't get on the air.
The Couric Revolution brought in production elements from "Today," like celebrity interviews. She put on Michael Fox, talking about Parkinson's, as if that was news. If people wanted celebrity interviews, they could go to that hard news show "Entertainment Tonight," or "Oprah, "Regis and Kelly" or "The View."
She introduced a segment of her own invention called "freeSpeech," designed to heighten public discourse by allowing celebrities to do rants. The moment she opened the mikes for radio rantmeister Rush Limbaugh as her first guest who had something to get off his chest, I knew something was wrong.
She showed baby pictures of Suri Cruise with the editorial comment, "Yessirrre, she does exist."
She was asking the audience what she should say as a sign off. "E-mail me your thoughts," she said, in effect. It was hard to imagine Walter Cronkite asking that. He just said, "And that's the way it is. It's over now. Good night."
She demanded and got the renovation of the newsroom women's room. They built her a shiny new $2.9 million set, the most revolutionary change in news since Dan Rather's new megamillions set of 1997 with an elevator that allowed him to get down fast from his second floor office to the news desk for breaking news.
Her think tank operatives encouraged her to play the sex card. The cameras began pulling back at the end showing us the famous Couric Legs.
The ghost of Edward R. Murrow had to be smoking a pack of cigarettes as he wandered the halls, wondering what the fuck was going on at his Tiffany Network.
And then they tried firing the manager. This is the old network news stupid pet trick: "Joe Fix it. Joe didn't fix it." Out went the veteran news producer hired for the Couric launch. In came an even more veteran, Rick Kaplan, who had 30 years fixing shows at six networks.
Kaplan threw out all the Couric innovations. He tried shifting Couric away from her flirty, funny, flubbing, morning persona to a hard-edgier and more humorless evening person. No more flaky ideas, Rick Kaplan decreed. Her informal greeting "Hi, every one," for example, " was neutered to a more formal "hello."
Kaplan's biggest change in the show was introducing so-called "hard news," exactly what for so long had mired "The CBS Evening News" in third place.
Kaplanologists like myself were betting on how long it will take for him to get fired at CBS. He's been fired everywhere else, most recently at MSNBC, and before that at CNN, CBS, ABC.
Not even Brian Williams, the second leading anchor person, being on vacation in July prevented "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" with all its Kaplanesque improvements from coming closer to Davy Jones' Locker, hitting an even lower bottom at a depth of 5.1 million.
The most cheering news for CBS stockholders in the first troublesome depressing year for the wild and crazy experiment in journalism launched by Les Moonves and his seven dwarfs running the news division had to be buried in the New York magazine profile that revealed Katie was apparently coming into her own now. She was starting to act like a real bitch. The story reported she was smacking people around in the newsroom. She was beating up writers because they used the wrong word (sputum) covering the TB scare. She wanted a sputum-free newscast.
One thing that works on TV is authenticity. By sheer trial and error, she may have finally stumbled on authenticity by coming out of the closet and blaming traitors in the newsroom for her failure. No more Ms. Nice guy.
The other smart thing the network news brainiacs did in the first year was finally realizing that Katie shouldn't be at the anchor desk. In September, she got raves from the media for going into the field and reporting from Iraq. Clearly, she belongs out of the building.
Maybe some day the audience will forget her first year under water.
Meanwhile, happy anniversary, Katie.
For anyone wanting to know more about the saga of how CBS might save itself from its own worse enemy -itself--tune in to the Oct. 9 issue of The Nation magazine (on newsstands Sept. 20). I heartily recommend the magazine's rescue plan. I wrote it myself.