A hard-news approach for Couric

The Baltimore Sun

From the beginning, Katie Couric's philosophy about her new post was clear.

"I didn't come here to do a traditional newscast, and I don't think CBS hired me to do a traditional newscast," she told Reader's Digest in February.

But a year after assuming the venerable anchor desk of CBS Evening News, that's exactly what Couric finds herself doing, while the news executives who ardently wooed her from NBC's Today show have glumly relinquished their hopes of turning a new audience on to an aging genre.

As Couric marks her first anniversary at the network this week, the question hangs heavy over CBS: Can the news division pull its flagship broadcast out of third place with its once-blithe anchor now buttoned up?

"You have to ask the question, does that fit Katie's strong suit?" asked Rick Keilty, senior vice president of Belo Corp., which owns four CBS affiliates. "I think the personality of the individual is a really important ingredient, and that's what's challenging about what they're attempting to do."

CBS has not planned anything to commemorate Couric's first year; instead, she's anchoring the broadcast this week from Iraq and Syria, part of an effort to burnish her credentials.

The mood couldn't be more different from last September, when the network was bursting with expectations that its high-wattage anchor would reinvigorate a staid format, draw scores of new viewers and propel the newscast out of third place. But the program's looser tone and its feature-heavy lineup turned off many longtime watchers. A year into her tenure, the broadcast's audience has shrunk by 8 percent, and the median viewer age has dropped to just 59.9 from 60.7.

Sean McManus, president of the news division, says he largely has given up on luring a different demographic.

"I didn't think we anticipated as well as we probably should have the resistance to change on the part of the viewing audience," he said.

So, news executives have gone back to the fundamentals. With Couric averaging 6.8 million viewers - 1.6 million fewer than ABC's Charles Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams - CBS' eagerness to experiment has evaporated.

Couric, who spent much of last week preparing for her trip to the Middle East, was unavailable for comment. But a source familiar with the internal dynamics said that while she continues to push for new approaches to stories, she has appreciated the discipline executive producer Rick Kaplan has imposed on the newscast.

But leveling the mountain of conventional wisdom about the broadcast will not be easy.

"The whole quality is beginning to pick up, and the rhythm and pace of the program says, 'This is a serious news program,'" said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC correspondent and now senior fellow for Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "But the perception of her lags behind the reality of the program, and it's going to take a while to catch up, if it does."

Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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