I applaud Couric for doing a decent and likable job as CBS News anchor. She has cleared the way for any woman to follow in the future, no small accomplishment. Yet, I also wonder why the networks keep trying to experiment in ways that never seem to work.
Katie made it big not as a reporter of hard news, but for her personality and bright smile and ability to interview all sorts of people. She followed three guys who were hard news to the core, Cronkite, Rather and Schieffer. That's decades of conditioning for the public as to what to expect on the CBS Evening News. Right away, they chased off their most loyal viewers by trying to make it into The Katie Couric Show, with news pushed off to the side like dog food at a high toned French restaurant. I don't think she ever recovered from that opening, but this mistake of offering a big build up to something New! Exciting! Different! has been repeated many times in network news and it always fails.
Here's the rule, network folks: the response of the public is inversely proportional to the build up given a new anchor or format. Big build-up equals big disappointment. Quiet, careful change might equal a larger, attentive audience.
There is another rule: there is no one human being, no one big name anchor, who can carry an evening news program all on his or her own. No one. You could put Obama in there the day after he leaves his presidency and he would get a huge response for a week or two before settling down into more or less normal numbers. Yet, network executives, particularly the people at the very top, go on believing that someone has the ultimate magic. Cronkite became our national uncle, the star of the evening news, by not trying to be the star. He had the right chemistry with the audience for that period in our history. It just worked.
The best thing CBS News could do now is to make a quiet, easy change in anchors, perhaps with Katie coming back from time to time for a few months and then get on with the business of reporting the news and making a better news division. If you take care of the news, the anchor problems will, over time, work themselves out.
Doug Terry 4.26.11