CBS execs keep anchor moored

Couric in the midst of 5-year, $75 mil contract

From the start, CBS portrayed its commitment to Katie Couric as one for the long haul. It took Tom Brokaw 12 years to climb to No. 1, CBS warned. On the flip side, it took nine years for Dan Rather to lose it.

But after 10 months in the chair, Couric is still anchored in third place, and now she appears to be equivocating. In New York magazine, Couric expressed misgivings about her jump to “Evening News,” but denied rumors she wants to make a fulltime move to “60 Minutes.”

Couric is in the midst of her mammoth, 5-year, $75 million contract and last week, CBS News and Sports prexy Sean McManus told the AP “All of us, including Katie, expect her to be anchoring the evening news in her fifth year.” Any speculation to the contrary, he added, “is insulting and it’s absurd.”

CBS concedes that its early experiments with “Evening News,” designed to shake up the form and take advantage of Couric’s personality, didn’t resonate. Even worse, since she was so heavily marketed and sampled, a lot of potential viewers came away with a bad first impression.

CBS brought in network vet Rick Kaplan in March to tighten the ship and focus on the headlines. He did, but viewers haven’t responded. During May sweeps, CBS was down about a million viewers — 6.1 million compared with 7.1 million a year ago — and it has lost 6%, on average, since the Couric era began in September. Couric has twice hit at least 20-year weekly ratings lows and still loses viewers from her lead-in, a troubling stat signifying that a significant number of CBS viewers go elsewhere when the “Evening News” starts.

Yet if it can be called a hopeful sign, Couric hasn’t lost the most viewers since September. That dubious distinction belongs to NBC’s Brian Williams, who also got a new exec producer in the spring, and like Couric, has hit 20-year weekly ratings lows. Williams has lost an average of 600,000 viewers since January, which has allowed ABC’s Charles Gibson to climb into first place. Gibson has actually gained 3% this season, an impressive stat given the general decline of evening news ratings.

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