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Alas, Poor Couric

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From left: Bob Schieffer, the interim anchor whom Couric replaced has been accused of driving negative stories about her in the press; Lesley Stahl, the 60 Minutes correspondent was asked to take a half-a-million-dollar pay cut after Couric came to CBS; John Roberts, an early candidate to replace Rather. CBS decided to go “a little less formal, a little more approachable,” says Couric. “Otherwise they could have had John Roberts do the Evening News.”   

By the first of the year, Couric’s ratings seemed to be in free fall. She was having trouble figuring out exactly who her audience was. At Today, she looked into the camera and imagined her average viewer as a 32-year-old lawyer with a toddler who was preparing to prosecute a case that day, or a stay-at-home mom who would “hopefully get some things about raising kids or the environment.” On the CBS Evening News, she couldn’t see anyone in the camera lens. “I’m not sure,” Couric says drily. “My parents. I know they’re watching.”

“People who are interested in the world and want to stay connected,” Couric finally manages with a sigh. “But truth be told, I don’t know if those people are in front of the television at 6:30 at night. I hope those that are will find our program compelling. But I don’t quite have them in my mind’s eye.”

CBS was spooked by the ratings decline. In an effort to lure new audiences, it had alienated its core. It was time to backtrack. In March, the network dismissed executive producer Rome Hartman, whom some criticized as having lost control of the show. Rick Kaplan, former president of MSNBC, was brought in to turn the broadcast back into something viewers recognized as a traditional evening news program.

A hulking six feet six inches tall, Kaplan is an imposing force inside the Evening News show, slamming his fist on the table when something goes right or wrong. A veteran producer who started in the seventies on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Evening News, he’s known for his healthy ego (he wears a giant gold ring featuring the initials R.K.) and a fear-inducing temper that’s blown up on a few sets over the years (he’s got a “baggage train as long as a Kenyan safari,” says one associate). Kaplan’s presence changed the atmosphere on the set, and Couric, under intense pressure to deliver ratings, seemed to be thankful for that.

“I’m not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” says Couric.“It’s probably disappointing to some people.”

Couric’s sit-down interviews with newsmakers of the day—her forte as a broadcaster—were pinpointed as dragging the show down. Not that they were bad—an interview with Michael J. Fox about his political campaigning last fall got a lot of attention—but at three minutes or longer, they were deemed too long for a 22-minute show. Evening news viewers, it turned out, just want headlines, not personality. Even McManus admits that Couric’s morning-show skills simply didn’t fit into the evening news: “A lot of things that made Katie successful in the morning probably don’t work in the evening news broadcast.”

Couric says she didn’t take the ratings dive, or the radical makeover of the show, personally. “I think maybe a new anchor from another network was jarring enough,” she says. “So perhaps we should have done a more traditional newscast and as time went on sort of wiggled out of that slowly.”

But the shift to a more traditional format clearly left Couric with some job dissatisfaction. Now that her interviews were being cut, she found herself having to fight for airtime in a way she hadn’t had to since her rookie days in Washington. According to Nicolla Hewitt, Couric’s longtime producer and “really, really close friend” (whom Couric personally authorized to speak for this story), the network began to renege on its promises and stopped giving Couric the support she needed to pursue news or command the news division. Management “nickel and dimed” her on ambitious enterprise stories and deferred to what Hewitt called the “old guard” at 60 Minutes on interviews that belonged to Couric.

“They do more to protect the old guard than they do to promote the new face of the network,” says Hewitt. “And it’s completely wrong. It’s time for a younger person there.”

When Couric wanted to go on high-profile reporting trips to Afghanistan and Iraq earlier this year, Hewitt says, the former trip was axed because of money and the latter because “we find out inadvertently that they’re sending Harry Smith from The Early Show.” (McManus says the decisions had nothing to do with money or turf: “We thought it was more important that Katie concentrate on the job of anchor.”)

And when John Edwards and his wife personally requested Couric to interview them after Elizabeth Edwards discovered her cancer had returned, 60 Minutes executive producer Jeffrey Fager resisted because he thought the news value had passed. Also, one of his other correspondents, Scott Pelley, was already pursuing an Edwards feature. The weekend of the broadcast, Couric complained to management and the show was quickly ripped up the day before it aired to accommodate her exclusive. “Why should we fight for an interviewee?” says Hewitt, who left the network in March, ostensibly because there were no more interviews left for her to book on the Evening News. “The commitment should be to her.”


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