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Alas, Poor Couric

But pity her not.

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From outside the sleek glass chamber of the CBS Evening News set, you can see her: alone in a prim black pantsuit and pearls, shuffling a stack of papers at the wide, half-moon desk. Sitting stiff and still, she looks dwarfed under the stage lights and high studio ceilings, the cameras barely visible in the shadows.

“Hello, everyone,” Katie Couric says into the camera, mouth turned down, eyes narrowed seriously.

She introduces the lead story of the day, and a news segment rolls while she sits and waits at the desk. When it ends, the camera returns. She peers gravely into the lens and introduces another story. It rolls, and Couric sits. She waits. The program fades to a pharmaceutical commercial, and Couric shuffles the papers and studiously examines her notes for the camera.

Twenty minutes later, it’s over.

And so it goes every night: same stoic gaze, same sober lead-ins from a TelePrompTer, the effervescent personality of America’s Sweetheart nowhere to be seen. It’s not exactly what Couric signed on for last year, when, with extraordinary fanfare, she became the first solo woman anchor on an evening newscast. CBS chief Leslie Moonves had lured her with the promise of “blowing up” the formulaic evening-news format, offering her a show that would be an incubator for her own ideas.

In the early, heady days after her arrival, the news had a chatty, friendly vibe and a bright, casual atmosphere never seen before at 6:30 p.m. There were fewer headlines, more news features, and off-the-cuff reactions from Couric. On her first broadcast, she conducted a sit-down interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about the state of the war on terror, asking him, “Are we safer now?” She introduced a segment of her own invention called “freeSpeech” that was supposed to foster public discourse by allowing celebrities and other guests to sound off on a topic of their choosing. She showed baby pictures of Suri Cruise (“Yessiree, she does exist!”). And at the end, as she signed off, she casually leaned against the news desk—a pose that, when the camera pulled back, revealed Couric’s famous legs. It might not have been revolutionary television, but it was a definite change from what Couric once derided as “newzak.” More than that, it was unmistakably Katie. A slightly more serious, more polished version of her morning-show persona, but Katie nonetheless.

Thirteen and a half million viewers tuned in to see her first broadcast. But it was only a matter of weeks before the numbers started dropping, first to pre-Couric levels, then even lower. By May, the ratings bottomed out at 5.5 million a night, the lowest in two decades. A distant third behind ABC’s Charles Gibson and NBC’s Brian Williams, Couric is, for the first time in her storied career, losing.

She and CBS are now taking a long, hard look at what went wrong. “I think the one thing that I realized, looking back at it and analyzing it, is people are very unforgiving and very resistant to change,” says Couric. “The biggest mistake we made is we tried new things.”

Which is why she is now sitting somberly behind the desk at CBS, shuffling papers and doing her best impersonation of a traditional news anchor. Her original show has been scrapped. Even her informal greeting, “Hi, everyone,” was buttoned up to a more formal “Hello.”

Would she have taken the job if she had known it would turn out this way? Couric hesitates. If Moonves had offered her the job she’s doing today, she admits, she would have thought twice about it. “It would have been less appealing to me,” she says. “It would have required a lot more thought.”

At Sarabeth’s restaurant on Central Park South one morning last month, Couric glides through the crowd at the door like she’s working the rope line at the Today show. She amiably chats up the family at a nearby table before playing a quick game of musical chairs to find just the right seat (facing away from the window) and ordering an omelette and coffee. Her face is preternaturally youthful at 50, nose pink after a weekend in the sun, lashy blue eyes dialing up the winsome smile by a few thousand watts. She doesn’t look like a woman embattled.

“I think that bugs people even more,” she says, “that I’m not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It’s probably disappointing to some people. Because in the arc of the story, that’s what they want to see.”

But her usual cheerfulness is interrupted by flashes of anger, disappointment, and even confusion about what is happening to her career at CBS News. “I’ve gone through a bit of a feeding frenzy and there’s blood in the water and I’ve got some vulnerabilities,” she says. “This person who’s been successful isn’t so great, and finally she’s been put in her place—that kind of mentality. I think it’s fairly primal.”


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