The Couric Effect: A Look Back at Katie’s Impactful Year
Precisely a year ago, Katie Couric was on top of the world — on the verge of becoming the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast solo, a milestone that sent broadcast news into tumult and made her the subject of massive media speculation.
She seemed like a natural choice as Variety’s Woman of the Year — in essence the cover girl for this newspaper’s annual Women’s Impact Report — subsequently making her debut to more than 13 million viewers in September. Had the year ended right then, no one would have cause to second-guess the choice.
Yet Couric’s ride has been predictably bumpy, reflecting a hard truth about the malleability, or lack thereof, of TV news habits. Yet her failure at “The CBS Evening News” — and there’s really no way to sugarcoat that appraisal thus far — has also yielded some instructive byproducts, among them a public discussion regarding the balance between hard and soft news.
For CBS, the Couric hire possessed so many alluring facets it was easy to see why CBS chairman Leslie Moonves and news division prexy Sean McManus would leap at the gamble: Not only was Couric a proven, beloved news “star” with years of equity built up on “Today,” but stealing her away would also destabilize that powerhouse NBC franchise, potentially throwing gobs of morning viewers up for grabs.
Call it win-maybe win, and if nothing else, hurt the other guy.
History, however, was not on CBS’ side, as students of local news can testify, where the practice of luring a rival anchor away from up the street seldom produces an immediate shift in ratings.
In that respect, her much-ballyhooed arrival at the helm of a slightly revised evening newscast yielded all the benefits CBS could have realistically hoped for — generating enough curiosity so that millions came to take a look at the shiny new store that had just opened up. Sampling has become half the battle in TV and, to quote another chief executive, from that perspective, mission accomplished.
Even so, the glitzy exterior couldn’t hide the soft core — that Couric, while at home amid “Today’s” mix of personality and human interest fare, looked ill-at-ease behind the anchor desk.
Moreover, the attempt to add even modest touches to brighten up the stodgy old evening news was one of those dunderheaded schemes unlikely to attract new viewers who don’t give a damn, while potentially alienating stalwarts who had long supported Dan Rather and, after his awkward exit, the avuncular Bob Schieffer.
So now Couric finds herself tethered to what appears to be, if not a sinking ship, one taking on water faster than anybody at CBS News knows how to bail. No wonder she’s undergone a minor image-reclamation project, suggesting in a magazine interview that with perfect hindsight she might have balked at the challenge — a cry-me-a-river lament if there ever was one, coming from a multimillionaire anchor as news divisions and newspapers hack their way toward profitability.
Like any broadcast news star, Couric won’t be lacking for options (“60 Minutes,” anyone? Perhaps), even if CBS’ McManus has stated flatly that she won’t be going anywhere.
In the interim, that leaves CBS headed back to the drawing board, trying to strengthen the rudders on “Evening News’ ” drifting ship of state and ignoring the backstage sniping that invariably accompanies such well-publicized misfires.
The only real tragedy in all this, frankly, would be if anyone drew too many conclusions about Couric’s predicament based on her gender. The move-and-flop pattern hardly discriminates by sex, as evidenced by former “Today” colleague Bryant Gumbel’s stumbling leap to CBS a decade ago as host of the short-lived “Public Eye.”
Gumbel eventually landed on his feet in a more modest showcase, and whatever her future holds, Couric surely will as well. Despite the properties of gravity, members of TV news’ A-list seldom plummet that far, that fast.
It’s worth remembering, too, that plenty of rising stars have found the air to be a little thin upon reaching the mountain top, where the climb up is heralded by designations like “Woman of the Year,” and there’s no longer the luxury of conducting the descent, when the time comes, under the shroud of darkness.