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Alas, Poor Couric

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The algorithm for why a news personality appeals or doesn’t turns out to be much more complicated than gender or reporting chops or whether someone came from morning television. After all, Charlie Gibson—the leader in the ratings—came from Good Morning America. Although, as Couric points out, “he was more of an avuncular figure on that show. I was encouraged to show a fun, playful side more.” And Diane Sawyer, Couric’s chief competitor for the mantle of most powerful and respected woman in television news, has done basically the same job as Couric for the last decade, yet no one questions Sawyer’s seriousness and credibility when she bags exclusive interviews or does hard news.

Couric suspects that if Sawyer were doing an evening news broadcast, she might have run into the same issues. “Perhaps.” But as it stands, Sawyer has exceptionally high favorability ratings, topping a Gallup poll last year measuring viewer opinion on TV news people. Meanwhile, as Couric has shifted away from her flirty, funny, line-flubbing, relatable morning personality to a harder, edgier, and ultimately more humorless evening persona, her Q score—the gold standard of favorability ratings—has declined. (As of last year, she was on par with Dan Rather.) Maybe it’s just growing pains as she moves from one phase of her career to the next. But the worry is that her transformation into Anchor Katie might be obscuring what made many people like her to begin with.

As her friend Hewitt puts it, “I don’t think CBS was ready for the change they said they were. They bought Diet Coke and turned it into bottled milk. They totally changed the brand.”

Back at Sarabeth’s restaurant, Couric has grown reflective. “I still believe I did the right thing, in my heart,” she says. “I would always regret not taking it. There are no guarantees, I knew that going in. I didn’t think I was going to take the evening news world by storm, and if I gave anyone that impression, I’m embarrassed. I thought I had done something for a while, this genre could use a little shot in the arm, maybe I could revitalize it somewhat. I had no delusions that this was a growing enterprise. I mean, I’m not an idiot … I think that’s why some of this pettiness and sort of gleeful evisceration of me doesn’t cut as much as you might think or even I might have thought. My expectations were never so high that if I wasn’t No. 1 it would be devastating to me.”

Of course, that’s not the message that was conveyed by the massive hype that surrounded her arrival at CBS. And there is no shortage of people (many of them inside CBS News) who believe that Moonves unintentionally laid the groundwork for her downfall with the excessive buildup.

On this question, Couric is careful but clear. “Um, I think he, you know, probably could have been told, ‘Easy, Les, don’t overpromise,’ ” she says. “But he was excited and enthusiastic and he saw this as an opportunity to push the envelope.” Couric says she was advised by at least one friend to downplay her arrival. “I remember Barry Diller saying, ‘Just be very low-key about it,’ ” she says. “And if I had my druthers, would I have not been on every bus in New York? Especially the ones that almost ran me over, which would be the ultimate modern-day O. Henry story? Yeah.”

Moonves, a TV executive with a barrel-chested confidence in his gut for good TV, says he bears no responsibility for how the show has failed: “Nope. I really don’t.”

But with ratings hovering between 6 and 7 million viewers a night, CBS News has to figure out how to salvage the estimated $75 million it’s paying Couric over five years. For now, the goal is simply to stanch the viewer bleed. Executive producer Rick Kaplan’s job is to bring consistency to the program. He’ll bring new ideas to the show, he says, “but it’s not necessarily new flaky ideas. Or new sketchy ideas. It’s about maybe some new but basic ideas.”

Couric admits that her original version of the show had problems. “Perhaps some of the pieces were too long, they weren’t as compelling. ‘FreeSpeech’—maybe every night it didn’t hold up.” But she still believes in what they were trying to achieve. “People can get the news anywhere, they don’t have to wait for the television. Take, say, up-armored vehicles: one vehicle that wasn’t up-armored, the ramifications of that on a soldier from Dallas. That’s a humanistic illustration of a news-making story.”

Couric seems determined not to let anyone see her suffer, but according to several people familiar with the situation, she is privately frustrated (“Going through hell,” says one producer) and moody about the ratings. The stress has caused her to blow up at her staff for small infractions on the set. During the tuberculosis story in June, Couric got angry with news editor Jerry Cipriano for using a word she detested—“sputum”—and the staff grew tense when she began slapping him “over and over and over again” on the arm, according to a source familiar with the scene. It had seemed like a joke at first, but it quickly became clear that she wasn’t kidding.


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