Friday, February 29, 2008

Don't blame Katie Couric

Last night, I uncharacteristically sat down to watch TV just before dinner. By chance, I happened upon the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. I haven't watched the CBS Evening News or any network newscast for a very long time -- probably since Katie did her first broadcast on CBS. I've heard about Katie's dismal ratings, so out of curiosity I watched her from start to finish. I was appalled.

I remember when CBS hired Katie a couple of years ago. Sean McManus, President of CBS news, said he was looking for a "prominent personality" to "attract a younger audience". Katie turned out to be the "prominent personality" he chose.

The program I watched had no personality and no distinguishing characteristics. It's no wonder it is a distant third in the ratings. Katie was dressed in a business suit and sat behind a big anchor desk just like Brian Williams on NBC and Charles Gibson on ABC. There was lots of duplication of news stories on the three broadcasts. This wasn't a big surprise. All the major broadcast news organizations -- radio, television, cable television -- seem to report the same 6-8 news stories each day in spite of the amazing variety of news and information that is available in this high-tech digital age.

Katie's primary function on the broadcast was to introduce correspondents in the field who did most of the reporting. She read what appeared to be scripted questions from a teleprompter to lead the correspondents into their reports. Sometimes, she got to read a scripted question to a correspondent to close a report.

For variety, Katie had a brief live chat with a reporter who joined her at the big anchor desk. It followed the format perfectly. Katie led the correspondent into her report by reading a scripted question to her. She closed the report with a very contrived sounding two or three word reaction of concern about the contents of the report. It may have been planned or scripted, too.

This was scary stuff. The newscast reminded me of liner card radio with a very expensive liner card reader -- Katie reportedly makes $15 million a year. I have no idea why CBS has her doing the format I saw. What a waste of talent and money.

Sadly, as I recall, there was a big tune-in for Katie's first few Evening News broadcasts. For a very short time, I believe her ratings were number one-- beating her direct competition on ABC and NBC handily. Apparently, Katie's fans from the Today Show were pretty excited about seeing what their friend would do with the CBS Evening News. So, maybe Sean McManus was right about Katie's personality and its appeal.

Unfortunately, when Katie's fans showed up for her first few broadcasts on CBS they discovered she wasn't there. Katie and her personality had been shoehorned into the conventional television network news format. She had become a robotic facilitator reduced to reading the liner card intros and extros. I guess Sean McManus will never know if his idea works unless he has the courage to create a unique format that showcases Katie's personality and talent instead of hiding it.

I couldn't help but wonder what might happen if CBS let Katie pick the stories to report and let her decide how to present them. This approach works pretty well for personalities like Oprah, Bill O'Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh. I don't know Katie and I have no idea what a newscast with stories of her choosing would be like. It certainly couldn't be any less distinctive or more ordinary than the current approach. At least it would let CBS know if the "prominent personality" they're paying for can actually attract an audience.

On second thought, that may not work either. I suspect Katie's "I Matter" belief is not very strong right now. The only support CBS management is providing for that belief is the big check they write to her each month. Sean McManus and his team probably need to learn and embrace "The Artist's Secret" before they put Katie in charge. Otherwise, it is likely to be a short-lived and ill-conceived experiment short on mettle and without an effective vision.

I know this from what I watched last night, there is no way CBS can blame Katie for the dismal ratings. The blame falls clearly on the people who designed the CBS Evening News format, choose its content and the way it is presented each day. And, the person who writes Katie's "liner cards" must shoulder some of the blame, too.

1 comment:

just me said...

Welcome, Bill... just found your link at All Access. I look forward to reading your views and commentary. The industry could use some answers right now!