CBS Confident Couric Has Heft

Apr 10, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Gravitas, schmavitas.

That’s CBS’s answer to the $75 million question of whether “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric has the persona to be flagship anchor of the network of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather and to be the first female ever to solo in that role at any network.

In naming the 49-year-old Ms. Couric the anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News,” CBS tapped the last nail into the coffin of the voice-of-God anchor. Under the five-year, $15 million-a-year deal negotiated by CAA agent Alan Berger, she’ll also anchor two to four prime-time news specials per year and contribute stories to “60 Minutes,” the still-potent granddaddy of all newsmagazines.

But the latter two assignments probably were not what “Today” weatherman and resident jokester Al Roker was thinking of when he responded to Ms. Couric’s emotional announcement that she would be leaving “Today” by joking on-air Wednesday: “Hell just froze over.”

The woman who had become the highest-paid news star during her 15 years on morning TV had made the richest and perhaps riskiest TV talent deal ever.

And CBS became the latest network to pass the anchor torch to a baby boomer.

Since November 2005, Tom Brokaw has been succeeded by Brian Williams, 46, as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” and the late Peter Jennings’ chair on “ABC World News Tonight” was divvied up between Elizabeth Vargas, 43, and Bob Woodruff, 44. (Mr. Woodruff was critically injured earlier this year in Iraq and is still recovering.)

When Dan Rather stepped down from “CBS Evening News” 13 months ago, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves asked Bob Schieffer to keep the seat warm while Mr. Moonves searched for a permanent replacement.

‘Loosening Up’ the Format

Mr. Schieffer threw himself into his temporary assignment, helping to loosen up the “Evening News” format with his folksy charm and his debriefing of correspondents during the broadcast. A combination of modest ratings growth on third-place “Evening News” and more dramatic erosion on “ABC World News Tonight” and leader “NBC Nightly News” left “Evening News” less than 400,000 viewers behind “World News” the week of March 27, according to Nielsen Media Research.

A year into his stewardship, Mr. Schieffer is more than pleased to think he’ll be handing off a more competitive “Evening News” to Ms. Couric in September.

“I think she has all the tools,” he said last week. “I want her to succeed.”

So effusive has he been in his praise of Ms. Couric that in his hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the headline on the Couric story read, “Schieffer Pleased Couric Coming to CBS.”

Extensive Coverage

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Schieffer said of the expansive coverage the Couric story had received in even the country’s most serious newspapers in the days after TelevisionWeek broke the news April 2 that Ms. Couric’s decision to go to CBS was imminent. “I think people are passionate about it,” Mr. Schieffer said.

“This past 24 hours have proven wrong all those people who keep saying the network news is a dinosaur, the era has ended, it’s all over, everybody’s getting it elsewhere,” said Prof. Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“We knew that wasn’t true when you’d look at the numbers-25 [million] to 30 million people watch evening news, which is, what, five times what are watching cable news. But a day like this reminds you that people do still care.

“In the end it’s the anchor position at a network that’s still the biggest plum in all of television news,” Mr. Thompson said. “And even though they’ve been in third place and had really hard times, I think it’s still the CBS anchor that’s the plum. It’s the chair that Walter Cronkite sat in.”

Ms. Couric is expected to remain on “Today” until the end of May, take the month of June off and then set up residence at the CBS Broadcast Center in midtown Manhattan.