Alas, Poor Couric

Photo: Platon

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.”

Her anchor debut.Photo: John P. Filo/CBS/Landov

Less than a year ago, Couric and Moonves seemed like the answers to each other’s prayers: She wanted a more serious news profile—just like her arch-rival Diane Sawyer, who last year was vying for the evening-news job at ABC (she lost out to Charlie Gibson). Moonves wanted to attract new audiences to the evening news by making it more like entertainment, envisioning a broadcast that was somewhere in between The Naked News, a British TV show in which beautiful women undress as they read the headlines, and “two boring people behind a desk.”

Ultimately, the two agreed that the show should be “more personable, more accessible, a little less formal, a little more approachable,” says Couric. “That certainly is one of the things they found attractive in hiring me, otherwise they could have had John Roberts do the Evening News.” (Roberts, a soap-opera-handsome anchor who was once a candidate to replace Dan Rather, left CBS for CNN in 2006.) During their many private conversations at his Manhattan apartment, Moonves told Couric that she would be given wide latitude to build a new program. He was willing to spend whatever it took to make it successful, including $2.9 million for a shiny new set.

Couric says that they never deluded themselves into thinking they had the “magic answer” to the problem of the nightly newscast. “We’re in the midst of such a major shift in how we consume information that even a brilliant guy like Les Moonves doesn’t necessarily have all the answers,” she says. But his enthusiasm for making changes convinced her to take the job. “I remember talking to [Sony BMG chairman and former NBC News president] Andy Lack, saying, ‘What I should do?’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to feel like, “I like this person, I can work with this person.” ’ And I clearly felt that way about Les.”

Couric must have known she was walking into a difficult situation. Moonves was never terribly popular with the news division; he had long been considered a Hollywood guy, and some people felt he unnecessarily burned former CBS News anchor Dan Rather after the infamous fake-document scandal involving George Bush’s National Guard service. For good or ill, Rather still represented the legacy of CBS News, the last larger-than-life newsman who could summon the hallowed ghost of Edward R. Murrow. He still had a number of loyalists on the staff, and they were deeply resentful of Moonves—and, by extension, wary of Couric.

Still, after years in the ratings dumps, CBS News needed a shot in the arm. Even if he didn’t know the first thing about news, Moonves did have a track record with TV audiences, having taken CBS’s prime-time programming to No. 1 by introducing warm, optimistic fare like Everybody Loves Raymond and cloneable franchises like CSI. Perhaps he would be right about Couric too.

The bar was set high. Couric was supposed to launch CBS News to first place, or at least second—anything but third. As Moonves’s bet started to seem like it might not pay off, ill will began to percolate through the newsroom.

The earliest complaints were about Katie’s entourage: a coterie of five staffers she brought with her from NBC, including her personal interview booker and producer of eleven years, Nicolla Hewitt, and a producer named Bob Peterson, whose job it was to ensure quality control on everything from hair and makeup to news pieces. Some CBS staffers bristled at the presumption of their new colleagues. When Couric flew her crew to Amman, Jordan, in November, her hairdresser, Mela Murphy, incensed that she didn’t get a first-class plane ticket with Couric, declared to a deputy assignment editor on the CBS News foreign desk that the producers were “lucky to have their jobs.” (Murphy was dressed down by CBS News senior vice-president Paul Friedman and eventually left the network.)

Then there was the case against Couric as a journalist. The idea of a celebrity anchor was particularly grating for some old-school newshounds on staff, the ones who thought an anchorship should be earned through a career of field reporting, like Rather and Peter Jennings did. Couric had once been an ace Pentagon reporter for NBC News, but that was in the late eighties; she made her bones as a morning-show host. “I think I underestimated the feeling that some might have that I was a morning-show personality and not a credible news person. Which I, quite frankly, think is patently unfair.”

She gave her detractors more ammunition in April with an embarrassing plagiarism scandal. An online producer copied a Wall Street Journal editorial for an online video essay known as Katie Couric’s Notebook, which gives the impression of being written by her. Couric correctly points out that Peggy Noonan used to write Rather’s commentary, but the incident seemed to cement the bias among the Ratherites that Couric symbolized the decline of news values.

Couric with CBS chief Leslie Moonves.Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

Most critical to Couric’s clash with her new colleagues was the nearly insurmountable issue of money. The news division at CBS had been whittled down financially over the years, something Rather often complained about when he was the Evening News anchor. In 1991, the budget for the CBS Evening News was about $65 million a year; by 2000, it was closer to $35 million. Producers and correspondents had learned to cut corners and live on the cheap, scrambling for such simple amenities as food at news events like Columbine or Katrina while NBC showed up with its own catering truck. Now Couric’s widely reported $15 million salary (some in the TV industry say it could be closer to $22 million, though Couric and CBS refute that) was taking up a sizable chunk of the total news budget—plus her segments were expensive to shoot. A regular news segment using a single camera and a correspondent might cost about $3,000 to shoot and cut, but sending Couric to anchor from a remote location—requiring hair, makeup, lighting, and three cameras—could cost as much as $40,000.

The move from the most lucrative news program in the history of television—Today makes about $250 million a year—to the financially threadbare CBS News was a culture shock for Couric. “Having been at NBC for seventeen years, you do get very comfortable with the way things are done,” she says. “And I think there was a definite undercurrent of concern about spending money. Which surprised me. Often the first question people would ask about a story is, ‘How much does it cost?’ And I didn’t really experience that a lot at NBC, quite frankly.” (She was also taken aback by CBS’s ragged infrastructure: The women’s bathroom was so filthy and run-down she demanded it be renovated.)

Early on, Couric admits she spent more money than usual chasing exclusive interviews, some of which, like an interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah in September, were eclipsed by breaking news and didn’t even air. “We were probably a little overzealous in wanting to use my experience and my contacts and my abilities to ostensibly make the program better,” she says.

But Couric also says that one of her requirements for taking the job was that Moonves agree to invest more money in the news division, ensuring that her arrival would be a tacit promise of a renaissance. “I would hope that people saw me as a signal that the news division was going to be put back on the front burner and built up,” she says. “And of course, anyone would be enthusiastic about that. Except those who like being miserable.”

According to CBS News president Sean McManus, the company has invested millions in building a new set and an HDTV control room and hired nine new correspondents in the last two years, part of a buildup of the division’s infrastructure. But while there was an initial surge of spending, there were cutbacks as well. And according to some staffers, the cuts seemed to fall mostly on the Ratherites. They believe that Moonves initiated a housecleaning effort to eliminate veteran producers from Rather’s era so CBS News could hire new ones at lower salaries. At least ten Evening News correspondents and producers have been dismissed in the last year.

The money issue even followed Couric to 60 Minutes, where she did five segments last season, garnering mixed reviews (too soft on Condoleezza Rice, too hard on John and Elizabeth Edwards). Several veteran correspondents were asked to take considerable pay cuts before and after Couric’s arrival, including, before he died in November 2006, Ed Bradley. Seventy-five-year-old Morley Safer took a 30 percent pay cut (for a reduced workload), and 65-year-old Lesley Stahl was asked to accept a half-a-million-dollar salary decrease during her recent contract negotiations.

McManus says Couric’s salary has nothing to do with the network’s overall news spending, including the salaries of other TV personalities, though he declined to explain precisely how the budgets break down. Asked about the unhappiness of some of her colleagues regarding her pay, Couric says, “I can understand that. Obviously I don’t want to rob Peter to feed Paul. I need strength and intelligence and great people around me, and we have to invest in them. So I’m sorry that perception is there, because it’s not something I came in wanting or believing would happen.”

But that doesn’t go very far in soothing the tensions. As one angry CBS News producer put it, “There’s not a lot of money there because we’re paying for Katie! Let’s not bullshit. People are pissed about Katie because she’s soaking up the money and she’s not making any money. I can’t get a raise because Katie Couric is failing on the Evening News? That’s huge.”

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.” Photo: Evan Agostini/Getty Images; Peter Kramer/Getty Images; Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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.”

Fager responds, “Everybody has to fight for every story that goes on the air. None of them just walk on the air. That’s why we maintain the quality we do.”

It’s not surprising that Couric is getting some push-back from the entrenched talent. The “old guard” has been besieged by younger models of late: Anderson Cooper of CNN is a recent addition to the 60 Minutes stable, as is Lara Logan, the 36-year-old South African correspondent whom Dan Rather urged CBS to hire. And CBS was in talks with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to eventually replace Bob Schieffer as host of Face the Nation, part of an effort to get a younger face in Washington to complement Couric’s during the 2008 election cycle.

But Couric is the biggest fish, and the easiest target. In April, an infamous Philadelphia Inquirer column by TV writer Gail Shister quoted anonymous CBS staffers predicting her imminent departure from the Evening News because CBS News management had deemed Couric an insurmountable failure. “It’s a disaster,” said one person identified as a veteran correspondent. “Everybody knows it’s not working. CBS may not cut her loose, but I guarantee you, somebody’s thinking about it.”

Subsequently, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer and 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl were fingered in the press as the sources for the story. Although both publicly denied talking to Shister, McManus privately chided Schieffer about loyalty to the network.

Couric says she was taken aback by the lack of “character” of those CBS News co-workers who she believes have driven the negative stories about her. “It’s damaging, and it’s really tacky,” she says heatedly. “And I would be so embarrassed to be one of these petty, behind-the-scenes operators who get some kind of charge out of trashing someone. I’m not perfect; I’m sure I’ve said unkind things about people in my career and life, but people getting their jollies from seeing it in print is so creepy and weird to me. And if you’re so unhappy, get another job!”

After that outburst of anger, Couric quickly composes herself. There’s always a bright side: The Shister story, she says, helped her win a few allies at CBS because others thought it was so unfair. “It was such an affront to all of us—a traitor-among-our-ranks feeling,” says Couric. “There are just certain things that colleagues are not supposed to do.”

When I bring up the name Bob Schieffer, Couric first affects naïveté, then smiles a knowing smile and says nothing.

At a May benefit for colon cancer at the bowling lanes at Chelsea Piers, Couric arrives right after delivering the evening news, still in her dark pantsuit, but now with a red T-shirt underneath that reads STRIKE OUT COLON CANCER. Since her husband, Jay Monahan, died of cancer in 1998, Couric has made fund-raising for the disease a major part of her public profile, prompting her most famous TV moment, the on-air colonoscopy in 2000. Standing before a bank of photographers on the red carpet, she mugs with a bowling ball alongside a few B-list celebrities (Steve Schirripa from The Sopranos and RuPaul), flashing a smile that is amazing for how unforced it seems. She bids farewell to Whoopi Goldberg, who apparently has lost weight since Couric last saw her. “Call me, woman!” says Couric, making a phone gesture with her thumb and pinkie. “Now that you’re all skinny and shit!”

It’s the “girlfriend” Katie, the former Tri-Delt sorority sister at the University of Virginia, the one whose cell-phone ring was recently identified as the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me),” the one who bonded with American women over cooking and fashion and parenting segments on Today. The one who doesn’t fit the mold of an evening news anchor.

Before Couric went on the air at CBS, there was much speculation about whether America was ready for a female anchor. Would she be able to attract new audiences to a dying medium? Or would she turn off longtime viewers of the Evening News who were used to something more stolid and comfortable (and masculine)? As it turns out, the answer to both questions is yes. Couric has attracted new audiences, specifically women; in the New York City market, she doubled the number of female viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 in June sweeps compared with last year. The trouble is that the average evening news viewer is still a 60-year-old holdover from a previous era. And he seems to prefer Old Man Gibson with the glasses on the end of his nose doing line readings of the day’s headlines.

As one CBS News correspondent put it, “Moonves said people don’t want to listen to the ‘voice of God’ anymore. And it’s exactly what they want.”

Couric says that one of the reasons she took the job was because she thought it had value “in a larger societal way.” And it’s hard not to notice that Couric’s personal publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, once handled Senator Hillary Clinton, another polarizing female figure breaking into the men’s club. (Hiltzik orchestrated Couric’s much-touted “listening tour” to dramatize the seriousness of her new endeavor, modeled on the kind he arranged for Clinton in 2000 during her first Senate run.) But Couric is circumspect about comparisons to Clinton. “I mean obviously there are some parallels, but I think discomfort or comfort or perception—you could compare Mitt Romney and Charlie Gibson,” she says, wriggling free of the question.

She’s also wary of playing the gender card now that things aren’t working out as planned. “I’m not naïve. I’m sure there is a percentage of the population that for whatever reason may not feel completely comfortable with a woman in a heretofore male-dominated role,” she says. “I think there’s a whole confluence of factors that contribute to some people not gravitating toward the program.”

But her closest friends—a group of women from her UVA and post-college days that includes fund-raiser Kathleen Lobb, Vanity Fair publicist Beth Kseniak, and Larry King Live executive producer Wendy Walker—believe sexism is a big part of the problem and a major source of frustration for Couric. Media criticism—like Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s piece about Couric’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings—never fails to describe her clothes and appearance, while those details are rarely observed about Gibson or Williams. “Personally, that really bothered me for her,” says Lobb of the Stanley column. “Because it’s not about evaluating the quality of her work.”

Couric’s response has been to tone down her wardrobe. “I try to give them as little to talk about as possible, without becoming Pat on Saturday Night Live,” she says.

Couric is having trouble figuring out who her audience is on the Evening News. “My parents,” she says drily. “I know they’re watching.”

But even conservative pantsuits can’t quell the interest in Couric beyond her performance on the news. The tabloid press has been particularly harsh in its analysis of her romantic relationships. Larry King’s marriage to a woman a quarter of a century his junior barely registers as surprising, but when Couric started dating a preppy 33-year-old entrepreneur and amateur triathlete named Brooks Perlin, the Post gleefully dubbed her a “cougar” for “devouring” a younger man. “It’s all so stupid,” says Couric, agitated. “The people who come up with this garbage and the people who market in pettiness … Do people enjoy this? Is this how they get their kicks?”

Of course, it’s not just the tabloid press that’s on the attack. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather (with whom Couric says she has always had a “perfectly pleasant, nice relationship”) recently told MSNBC radio host Joe Scarborough that Moonves was “dumbing down” and “tarting up” the broadcast with Couric. Moonves retaliated by calling Rather’s comment sexist: “For certain people in America, they’re not used to getting their news from a woman,” Moonves says. “It’s going to take time for people to adjust. There’s an automatic assumption on the part of certain people that they would rather get news from a man.”

Rather says his “tarting up” comment was taken out of context. “There’s a long list of women whom the public accepts in all kind of roles,” observes Rather, mentioning Christiane Amanpour as one of the most respected reporters on television. Moonves, he says, “thinks the audience is redneck and the press is a bunch of assassins. I have so much confidence in the audience. The audience is not going to buy that. They look at what’s on the air, and that’s where they make their decisions.”

And that, perhaps, gets to the heart of the matter. The reaction to Couric as anchor has less to do with the fact that she is a woman than it has to do with the type of woman she is—or at least the type she has played on TV. Despite a long list of accomplished interviews with world leaders and politicians, from Tony Blair to President Bush to Kofi Annan, Couric has a hard time shaking the perception that she’s light and girlish, as opposed to serious and mature.

She blames it on the later incarnation of the Today show. “I think the show got increasingly soft during my tenure, during the end of it,” she says, referring to the version of the program run by former executive producer Tom Touchet, with whom she often clashed. “And that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t fulfilled journalistically in the job. Perhaps the most recent memory of me in the eyes of some people is of the softer, fun aspects of the Today show, which I totally enjoyed and I think I did well in, but it wasn’t the whole enchilada for me.”

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.

“I sort of slapped him around,” Couric admits. “I got mad at him and said, ‘You can’t do this to me. You have to tell me when you’re going to use a word like that.’ I was aggravated, there’s no question about that.” But she says she has a good relationship with Cipriano. “We did ban the word sputum from all future broadcasts. It became kind of a joke.”

Couric is looking to the 2008 election cycle as an opportunity to build her reputation as the network’s authoritative voice. She’ll be moderating a presidential debate in December in Los Angeles, and CBS has hired Washington correspondent Jeff Greenfield from CNN as a familiar face who can serve in a veteran Tim Russert–type role when she’s analyzing the race. (In addition, she’ll be broadcasting alongside Schieffer, who will remain the host of Face the Nation through 2008, which should make for interesting viewing.) “She’ll get to prove her mettle,” says Kaplan. “That’s where she’ll prove all the things she can do, and, boy, do I like our chances.”

But Couric is realistic enough to imagine that it might not work out in the end. “If it turns out it wasn’t a perfect fit,” she says, “then, you know, I’ll do something else that’s really exciting and fulfilling for me.”

She brightens when discussing her future work for 60 Minutes. While she refutes widespread rumors that she’s going to jump to 60 Minutes, Couric does plan to ramp up her production there, with the intention of doing eight-to-ten segments in the coming season. This summer, for instance, she’s interviewing former CIA operative Valerie Plame for an exclusive in the fall, tied to Plame’s tell-all published by Simon & Schuster. It’s obvious that 60 Minutes best reflects what Couric would like to do—exclusive interviews with newsmakers and celebrities—much more so than does the current version of the CBS Evening News.

Jeff Fager, the executive producer of the show, says he can easily imagine Couric working at 60 Minutes full time. “I could see that, yes,” he says. “I’m sure she’d probably like to do that some nights.” When I bring up Fager’s comment to Couric, she agrees, “Yes, and have a little more of a life.”

It makes you wonder if she doesn’t have days when she wakes up and wishes she hadn’t jumped to CBS News. “I mean, of course. I’m human. I’m not going around, ‘Dee-da dee-da dee,’” she says. “I have days when I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?’”

She pauses.

“But for some weird reason, they don’t happen that often.”

She summons a smile. Even now, her optimism is irrepressible.

Alas, Poor Couric