'Couric Effect' brings a human dimension to 'CBS Evening News'

Katie Couric is fully aware of the milestone she has achieved by being named the first solo woman to anchor a network newscast — but she’s less interested in making history than reporting it.

“I didn’t do it because of the historic nature of it,” she says of her decision to leave NBC and its top-rated morning show for the chance to helm the perennially last-place “CBS Evening News.” “There were few things I had yet to tackle on the ‘Today’ show. I’m someone who is very interested in news and in the way it’s conveyed. Accepting this challenge feels right to me at this point in my life.”

Couric says she was “a bit” taken aback by the gender-focused coverage of her job switch. “I can understand that people would recognize the fact that a woman has never done this job by herself,” she says over coffee and cornflakes at a Manhattan diner. “But the ubiquitous questioning of a woman’s ability to do it or society’s acceptance of a woman in that role did surprise me a bit.”

When Couric’s first CBS news broadcast airs Sept. 5, a seismic shift will have occurred in television that has to do with more than her being the first primary national news anchor to wear lip gloss. Couric, 49, is the first post-modern anchor.

Her on-camera accessibility and storied influence over viewers on everything from their hairstyles to their health earned her superstar status during her 15-year tenure at “Today.” While her competitors, former NBC colleague Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles Gibson, don’t exactly embody the “voice of God” persona of their predecessors Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings, they represent the “new” old-guard anchorman — unflappable and reserved, with nary a flinch of emotion between them. In striking contrast, Couric feels her stories.

“What I’ll bring to the table I’ll bring because of the person I am and the experiences I’ve had,” she says.

More than likely that means more medical and health-related stories.

Two years after her husband, legal analyst Jay Monahan, died from colon cancer in 1998, she underwent an on-air colonoscopy. Medical researchers reported a 20% nationwide increase in screenings, dubbing the phenomenon “The Couric Effect.”

The powers that be at CBS are banking on that same resonance and authority to breathe new life into its news division. “When we agreed to bring her to CBS News, I think it sent the message that we were going to do whatever it takes to make sure that we get back to being No. 1 in news coverage in all areas,” says news president Sean McManus.

Observes longtime Couric pal and executive producer of CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery” Susan Zirinsky: “There’s an energy in this building that has not been felt in a very long time. The ascension of Katie Couric to CBS is an adrenaline injection that I don’t think this organization has had in 20 years.”

If Couric is feeling the pressure of being named savior of the network’s news division, she doesn’t show it. While she describes her new job as “exhilarating and daunting,” she laughs often and easily while discussing it. She jokes she was on “a self-imposed news blackout” during her monthlong vacation in June. Much of her time was spent with her daughters Ellie, 14, and Carrie, 10, who are headed off to camp for the summer. “It’s been very restorative to have downtime to clear my mind,” says Couric.

CBS’ new $15 million woman (a slight pay cut from her “Today” salary) is gearing up for the formidable task of reinvigorating the nightly news and is looking to her faithful fans to help shape her broadcast. She’s been working closely with McManus on everything from the set to on-screen graphics for her broadcast.

Couric claims her highly touted six-city “listening tour” — during which she met regular folk (no press allowed) to get their views on the news, and gave cancer awareness speeches (press welcome) at local hospitals — were more than just a publicity stunt. “It was my idea,” she says. “It’s really to help me rather than have people exposed to me.”

Both Couric and McManus offered few details on exactly what to expect on the retooled newscast. McManus says the broadcast will go multimedia with a web video, blog and radio simulcast. They both describe it as “an evolution, not an revolution” and “a work in progress.”

Says McManus: “The way she’ll deliver the news will be clear and accessible. Katie talks the way regular people talk. She won’t be delivering the ‘Sermon on the Mount.’ She’ll be very straightforward and down to earth.”

Couric, like Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite before her, assumes the title of the broadcast’s managing editor. “It means I have significant input and I’m part of the editorial decisionmaking,” she says. “If people get the impression I’m some kind of marionette being dictated to by people on the show, that’s not the case.”

While she hopes viewers –and critics — will focus on substance over style, she’s braced for the inevitable critiques of her hair and wardrobe. “As long as they talk about Brian Williams’ tie and Charlie Gibson’s suit, I’m fine with that,” she quips.

As for the speculation about whether the woman who will change the face of TV news will undergo her own makeover Couric, a bit weary of the topic, says: “I don’t think I’m really going to change that much. I guess I’ll be a tad more businesslike. I thought I dressed professionally on ‘Today.” I wore a lot of suits. Sometimes I’d wear a sweater but after 15 years, you’ve got to mix it up a bit. It’s really not a window into my soul.”

Role models: “My parents, my sister and every other ‘first’ woman.”

Career mantra: “My mom always said, ‘Let ‘em know you’re there.’ I guess all of us did.”

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