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Couric interview revives CBS

Network upbeat after Palin segment

Only months ago, as other networks were reaping the benefits of unprecedented interest in the presidential campaign, one network seemed to be left out of the dynamic: CBS.

Plans for network-sponsored primary debates fizzled, and ratings for CBS News’ primary coverage trailed those of its broadcast rivals. Rumors swirled that anchor Katie Couric was on her way out.

But over the past few weeks, with a much talked-about Couric interview with Sarah Palin, a more aggressive online presence and a popular Q&A series with the presidential candidates, there’s a sense among TV news insiders that the Tiffany net’s news division is starting to make a comeback. Certainly, those pesky rumors about Couric’s imminent departure have ebbed as she soaked up generally positive reviews for her one-on-ones with Palin.

Moreover, CBS News will get a moment in the national spotlight with the final presidential debate on Oct. 15, to be moderated by the Eye’s avuncular “Face the Nation” anchor, Bob Schieffer, at Hofstra U. in Hempstead, N.Y.

The Palin interview “was really the light at the end of the tunnel for CBS,” says Andrew Tyndall, author of the Tyndall Report, which tracks the weeknight broadcasts of the Big Three network news operations.

CBS’ Nielsen numbers have not budged — although it’s rare that any evening newscast turns around that quickly. Thus far into the current season, the newscast pulls a rating/share of 4.1/8, versus 5.4/11 for ABC and NBC each. The last time CBS posted a rating above third place was the 1992-93 season, when it placed second with 9.6 (NBC clocked 8.8).

Couric, of course, isn’t the only anchor to see professional fortunes ebb and flow during the campaign. Campbell Brown has employed sharp commentary to raise her profile and solidify her place within CNN’s primetime lineup, while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow successfully used the campaign to launch her show — often drawing audiences that surpass those of her lead-in, MSNBC’s top-rated “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.”

On the flip side, the glibness of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews has occasionally drawn fire from all sides, particularly during the primaries for his comments about Hillary Clinton.

Nevertheless, Couric is surely the highest-profile personality to benefit, and was arguably the most beleaguered going in.

“We’ve seen a role for Katie Couric that has developed in this campaign,” says Amy Mitchell, deputy director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. “She is the one who can ask Palin uncomfortable questions or questions that would not work well if a man asked them.”

Mitchell also points to Couric’s “type of interviewing, which is soft, unpretentious, demanding but not pushy. All of that led to a very successful interview. (ABC News anchor) Charlie Gibson couldn’t have asked the same questions and gotten the same result.”

Gossip spores were first spread last spring by a Wall Street Journal article quoting unnamed sources saying Couric’s departure was “likely,” having failed to generate a ratings bounce since assuming the anchor chair. Other outlets picked it up and started running stories that were hard to distinguish from death-watch notices.

Despite denials by both Couric and CBS News brass, not to mention a newsmaking interview with Barack Obama in July when the candidate visited Iraq, the rumors persisted — even proliferated — as week upon week of Nielsen numbers showed no movement.

Then John McCain picked Palin as his running mate, and the campaign decided to shield her from media questioning, stoking intense curiosity about her. ABC News’ Gibson got the first shot in an interview that drew mixed reviews.

Couric got the second sit-down, in a move that surprised some, if only because of CBS’ low ratings. (Then again, the GOP hasn’t been shy about bashing NBC News for giving a platform to Olbermann’s irreverent and unabashedly liberal-leaning program.)

The only complaints about Couric’s handling of her series of interviews with the “it” candidate of the moment have come from Palin, who has said Couric “annoyed” her with some questions and failed to ask about things “Americans really care about.” But even some conservatives who have railed against “the liberal media elite” had no real brickbats to lob at Couric.

Indeed, if buzz translated into ratings, CBS’ would be somewhere in the stratosphere. Video clips of the interview flew around the Internet, and Palin’s answers — or lack of them — dominated the news cycle for several days.

“CBS Evening News” exec producer Rick Kaplan reiterates what he and CBS Corp. boss Leslie Moonves have said for months — that Couric’s status was never in question. He says reaction to the Palin interview as well as the newscast’s well-received “Presidential Questions” segment have “really energized people here. We’re seeing a great payoff to a lot of hard work.”

Kaplan disagrees with pundit suggestions that gender gave Couric an advantage in her sit-down with Palin.

“I think the interview was interesting because Katie is an extraordinary interviewer,” Kaplan says. “Charlie Gibson is an extraordinary interviewer, too, but I think Katie knew better how to handle it. It’s almost gender bias to see the success of the interview as only a matter of gender.”

Some, including Kaplan, saw gender bias in media reaction to Couric’s becoming CBS’ lead anchor, alleging that media critics (mostly men) held women to a different standard. Similarly, the McCain campaign has cried “sexism” regarding news reports about Palin.

“I think the judgments being made about Sarah Palin are all based on the things she said to Katie, not the questions,” Kaplan says. “Some of the questions she has faced (from other journalists) have been unfair, yes. And women in general are held to a different standard. But that doesn’t explain all the coverage about Palin.”

With the Couric-Palin interview still sizzling on the Internet, CBS News would have seemed the place to watch the vice presidential debate. And of the three nets, the Eye had the best lead-in to the Oct. 2 bout between Palin and Democratic veep contender Joe Biden, as it preceded the debate with an installment of “Survivor” that led the 8 p.m. hour with 13.1 million viewers. But CBS’ coverage held onto only 8 million viewers, while ABC and NBC pulled nearly 9.8 million apiece, beating their lead-in programs.

The Eye pulled better numbers last week with the second presidential debate, but they hardly constituted a turn-around.

“News audiences need good reasons to change,” Kaplan says. “They’re loyal, they’re not fickle, and it takes more than one or two (hits) to get them to change. But you can do it. It takes years, and we’re prepared for the long haul.”

That includes a new online presence thanks to CBS’s purchase of Internet news and info provider CNET.

All three nets have been struggling with the digital transformation, but until recently, CBS seemed to be struggling the most, according to Tyndall. Now, he says, the way CBS tapped CNET’s distribution infrastructure to control access to the widely viewed Palin video “is the first sign that they do have a plan.”

Having had such a massive viral hit with Palin, and success with the webcasts Couric has hosted after big events like the debates and the GOP and Democratic nominating conventions, Couric now becomes even more important to CBS News. As Tyndall notes, “She stamps herself on all content and it all gets posted.”To that end, Kaplan and Couric are already exploring possible series and segments she will front after the election — meaty topics that lend themselves to online extensions, e.g. chronicling the first 100 days of the new administration as well as the ongoing economic crisis.

So while the ratings for Couric’s flagship “CBS Evening News” program may not improve markedly, old-fashioned TV ratings may become increasingly irrelevant.

“You can’t have Nielsen numbers dropping; you do need to maintain them,” Tyndall says. “But all future growth is going to be on digital platforms.”