Katie Couric: Lame Duck Anchor

by Rick Rockwell*

If Katie Couric wasn’t a wildly over-paid and over-rated television anchor, I might actually feel sorry for her.

How would you like it if the whole world knew you were about to be demoted and you were still going to work at your job for more than six months?

Worse. Your own network doesn’t protect you by posting speculation about your job status on its website.

To be fair to Couric, her promotion to top anchor was another genius idea from the television programmers at CBS, the folks who have wrecked whatever legacy remained of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. As both Tom Shales and this author wrote at the time, Couric was a poor choice, because her style of breezy celebrity interviews was better suited for Today on NBC, where she had made her career. Couric is also not the type of hard news reporter, someone like Christiana Amanpour, who has credibility with the audience seeking the nightly news. Finally, as the first woman to officially anchor a nightly news broadcast solo (some have a good argument that Elizabeth Vargas beat her to the punch) Couric was exposed to sexist commentary from her very first day on the job.

After a brief honeymoon with the evening news audience, her ratings tanked and have remained in third place ever since. After The Wall Street Journal broke the news that CBS executives were planning on replacing her, after almost 18 months of ratings pain, viewers deserted the already low-rated newscast.

This just shows how unliked Couric is inside CBS. Television executives must know the audience dislikes change generally (although most were glad to see Dan Rather go). By leaking their deliberations over this decision, they guarantee they will look like they made the right move. They have already asked Bob Schieffer, who stepped in as interim anchor between Rather and Couric (Shieffer also improved the dismal CBS ratings, even though he is not photogenic, but rather an old school beat reporter) to delay retirement, obviously looking to him to bail them out again while the suits in the big offices go looking for a long-term replacement.

The culture at CBS has never been one to accept outsiders. Likeable as she is to some viewers, Couric was not embraced warmly by insiders at CBS. The leaks and poor handling of her story on the CBS website are likely just the tip of the iceberg of this game of network politics.

The problem is that as part of that political game, Rather successfully maneuvered for years to undercut most of his successors. That left the CBS anchor bench particularly thin. When the network passed up Rather’s likely successor, John Roberts, he jumped ship for CNN.

But television news is in such a sorry state that few are wringing their hands over yet another blow to CBS, once known as the Tiffany Network.

As for Couric, she will rebound. CBS grafted her personality on to its magazine program 60 Minutes, and she’s likely to stay there unless the network develops a new program around her dimming star. Couric’s addition to 60 Minutes though, just like her turn in the anchor chair, has only further lightened the content on what was once America’s most serious network.

But if CBS News floats away, unburdened as it is with much, if any, journalistic weight to give credibility to its programs will anyone care? Or notice?

And as for Katie, she gets 15 million reasons a year from CBS as to why she does not need our sympathy.

*Rick Rockwell contributed stories to CBS News during the Rather era; Rockwell has worked for various U.S. television and radio networks.

(The promotional photo of Katie Couric's first CBS evening broadcast is from CBS.)

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Rick Rockwell said...

Update: Because of staff morale issues, executives at CBS announced their support for their embattled anchor, Ms. Couric, just hours after this analysis was posted. (You can read an update about that announcement from The Washington Post here.) However, in a case of speaking out of both sides of their mouth at CBS, The Post's Howard Kurtz found two high-level executives who confirmed that Couric would be out as the main anchor sometime after the November election.

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