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Anchor Roulette

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The eminence gise: Walter Cronkite.  

People who know Katie Couric say they don’t know what she’ll do—and suggest that Couric doesn’t know yet, either. She may allow herself to be wooed for a while; her agent, Alan Berger of Creative Artists Agency, has been suggesting around town that his client is seriously weighing the possibility of moving to CBS. And it’s conceivable that CBS would commit to the $15 million-a-year salary it would probably take to hire Couric, as well as the additional millions she would demand that the network pump into the news division to support her. One rival network estimate put the CBS bill for hiring Couric at $50 million, which would include the cost of grabbing talent from other networks, Roone Arledge style.

Still, it would be hard for her to leave NBC. She owes her career to Jeff Zucker, the former Today executive producer who now runs the network, and in some ways to the show itself. Even her competitors acknowledge her gifts as a morning-television personality and her tremendous worth to NBC. “When you think of NBC, you don’t think of Brian Williams,” a competing producer says. “You think of Katie.” She has become a pop-culture icon for a generation of American women. Her boyfriends, her hair, her salary, her legs—all of it has become the stuff of legend.

Should she quit it all just to be the Queen of CBS? Imagine the possibilities: She would rule the news division, earn untold millions, do pieces for 60 Minutes, and even get a syndicated show from Viacom one day, maybe around when Oprah retires in 2011. But does she need the aggravation of anchoring a nightly newscast and being on call 24 hours a day? Does she want to be on the air for hours at a time during special events, having producers yell into her earpiece? “Let’s put it this way: If Katie Couric is CBS’s plan A,” an NBC News executive remarks, “I sure hope they have a plan B.”

They don’t. ABC has successfully raided the talent roster of CBS over the past two decades, leaving no star power whatsoever. The layoffs during the years Laurence Tisch ran CBS left permanent, searing holes in the reporting roster that former news chief Andrew Heyward never repaired. The few remaining stars in the CBS News lineup—the 60 Minutes warhorses Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl, Dan Rather, and Andy Rooney—are all over 60 years old, and in some cases over 80. No anchor candidate has ever emerged from 60 Minutes—despite a commonly held misconception, Ed Bradley never seriously discussed the job with CBS—and the most recent generation of CBS reporters has produced no future anchors, either. In-house enthusiasm over 34-year-old foreign correspondent Lara Logan—a relative newcomer who’s been promised a prominent spot on a revamped CBS Evening News With Your Name Here—reflects just how slim the pickings have become.

Much of the problem originated with Andrew Heyward’s famous “tin eye” when it came to casting news stars. In almost ten years in charge of CBS News, Heyward never once discovered a true star; right after he got the job in 1996, bad picks like former U.S. congresswoman Susan Molinari and the $25 million Bryant Gumbel disaster revealed Heyward’s weakness in the talent end of the business. The problem continued to haunt him throughout his tenure; more recently, he passed on the chance to expand an arrangement between 60 Minutes and Anderson Cooper and to hire Bob Woodruff as a correspondent.

The problems at CBS News extend beyond the issues of its evening newscast. The division still suffers from ratings weaknesses across its schedule: It has no weeknight prime-time newsmagazine, and The Early Show continues to lag behind the behemoths. (Only the Sunday-morning talk show Face the Nation has gained audience share.) Unfortunately, even within CBS News there’s a defeated feeling—the sense that every day with Bob Schieffer behind the anchor desk (he’ll be there at least until the end of 2005, and likely longer) represents another day without a vision for the future.

“To say that CBS News is in chaos at the moment,” says one top CBS News correspondent, “is to vastly understate the situation.”

You remember Walter Cronkite, right? He’s 88 years old and still alive and well. CBS News made him its anchorman in 1962 to replace Douglas Edwards, who’d been anchoring the fifteen-minute nightly newscast since the late forties. Faced with competition from Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the NBC anchor team, CBS recognized that Edwards wasn’t a star. They liked this fellow Cronkite: He was one of Murrow’s boys, he had the deep and authoritative voice of an anchor, and he seemed good at looking into the camera and conveying trust. A decade later, Cronkite brought his own brand of Murrow-like passion and point of view to the evening news. Landmark investigations by Cronkite into Watergate and Vietnam—along with his second-to-none nightly newscast—made him the definition of a television news anchor.


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