With Couric, CBS takes a step forward

The Baltimore Sun

Just about midway through the past century, the guys who ran CBS decided to change the anchorman of the Evening News.

Then as now, anchormen changes didn't happen with the flip of a coin, so there was a long debate about what to do. The bosses went through a long list of guys, but the news president at the time liked urbane Charles Collingwood, one of Edward R. Murrow's boys. The entertainment boss liked this slick, handsome, smart guy by the name of Mike Wallace or, if he wasn't available, a guy named Clete Roberts who was anchoring the local news in Los Angeles.

Lots of other guys were proposed, but failing to agree on any, CBS stuck with the guy who was already in the anchor chair, Douglas Edwards. What about Walter Cronkite? He wouldn't get his shot until seven years later, in 1962.

And so, in one brief but telling anecdote, you have much of the history of the network evening news institution from then until now: Guys deciding which other guys will give the news of the world to the American viewer.

Admittedly, these guys usually chose wisely and well (and, by the way, even chose women to briefly enter the club as co-anchors -- Barbara Walters, Connie Chung and Elizabeth Vargas). Nevertheless, whether you like Katie Couric or don't, think she's biased or not, think she's "perky" or serious, smart or frivolous, the right choice or the wrong, there is one indisputable fact everyone can agree on: She is a woman and the first female solo on one of the Big Three's weeknight broadcasts in TV history.

As such, tomorrow at 6:30 p.m., when the Evening News becomes The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, a TV institution isn't just undergoing a mere semantic change but a fundamental, symbolic one as well.

Consider that for most of their history, these Big Three newscasts thrived on the proposition that in the span of 22 minutes the viewer at home could get the whole wide world. It was a frivolous notion, perhaps even an illusion, but for it to succeed, each needed an anchorperson of probity, justice, fairness, sobriety, intelligence, broad experience and an ability to read a teleprompter. And until tomorrow, that person was almost always a "he."

In interviews, Couric has affected a sort of "oh really?" tone when the subject turns to her status as pioneer. At the recent TV critics' press tour, for example, she said "being the first woman was not the motivating factor for me to take on this new job ... although when my 10-year-old and my 14-year-old and I discussed it around the kitchen table, I do think my 10-year-old was channeling Helen Reddy because she said, Mom, you've got to do this. You're the first woman to do this job by yourself.' It's like, Where did you come from?'"

"We all feel an enormous sense of responsibility," says Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports. "There is so much attention focused on what we're doing and it's such a major departure not just for CBS News but for the industry."

McManus would also be the first to admit that CBS, in fact, did not set out to strike a blow for women's equality in the anchor chair; he's attempting to fix an institution that has bled viewers and relevance. All of the evening news broadcasts are hobbled by circumstances beyond their control -- their brevity and the time they air. They're in a fight for survival just like any other show on the schedule. CBS -- paying Couric $15million a year, or significantly more than any of her male predecessors -- believes she will drag viewers over to a broadcast that has remained stuck in third place since the late '80s.

But symbols are hard to kill, even harder to change, and these three shows very much remain vital symbols of the nation's commercial television broadcasting system, which turns 60 next year. How did they become so soaked in testosterone, and what are the prospects for a female in the anchor chair?

Carole Simpson, the former anchor of ABC's World News Tonight Sunday editions (who left the network in January), has also been a longtime gadfly on the subject of anchor-chair equality: "I go all over the world and there are female anchors everywhere, including Muslim countries, and then you come back to the United States and say, Hello, what's happened here?'."

In the prehistoric era of network news, there were few female reporters, let alone anchors. (Female anchors on local TV didn't become commonplace until the early 1970s). The handful of female correspondents -- such as Pauline Frederick, United Nations correspondent for ABC and NBC News from the 1950s through the 1970s -- were never considered for anchor gigs.

And the woman who did become the first solo anchor of a weeknight newscast, ABC correspondent Marlene Sanders, did so only for one night in 1964, after the regular anchor called in sick.

"The medium is very cautious," says Sanders, now lecturing and teaching at New York University. "They never lead on anything -- they follow -- so it's finally safe to do this. They should have done this when I was subbing all those years ago. It would have been revolutionary.."

Linda Ellerbee, president of Lucky Duck Productions, the flagship of Nick News, and herself a pioneer in the 1970s as co-anchor of NBC News Overnight, explains that at least three reasons kept the glass ceiling largely intact. Foremost were "the basic economics of television. You fill the seats with mass audience. How do you do that? The first and easiest way is to not offend the viewer. So if the received wisdom is that men are superior in this job to women, then why screw with it? It was easier not to do. Dan, Peter and Tom held those jobs and truthfully, this was not an issue for many years and there was no reason for it to be."

Ironically, when the networks did try female co-anchors -- Walters in 1977 or Chung in 1993 -- those experiments failed spectacularly, and possibly reinforced the bias against female network anchors in general.

There were other theories for the paucity of big-league female anchors on the weeknight newscast. That perhaps women's voices were too high. Or that they didn't instill confidence. Or that women weren't as believable, authoritative or calming as men. Gail Evans, former executive vice president of CNN -- now lecturer on gender, race and ethnicity in organizational behavior at Georgia Tech -- cites a recent study "which shows that people buy into the old stereotype that 'women take care and men take charge.' What's fascinating about the study is that women buy into the stereotype as much as men."

Which, of course, presents the greatest unknown about Couric. Says Evans, who worked with Couric in the '70s and hired many of CNN's female anchors, "I say to women all the time, if you want to support yourself, go watch Katie. If women aren't going to buy into women in leadership, why should we expect men to do it?"

Verne Gay writes for Newsday.

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