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Execs Weigh Couric Spike

Sep 4, 2006  •  Post A Comment

There is a circumspect consensus to network news executives’ predictions about the reception for the “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” which debuts Tuesday night: Curiosity will produce a short-term spike in the “Evening News” ratings, which will then subside.

To what level, no one will publicly or privately predict to a reporter.

Even CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus foresees a “big tune-in” Tuesday night and “some drop-off the second night.”

He expected much of the weekend to be devoted to dress rehearsals and run-throughs of “CBS Evening News,” which has a new set, new theme music and new graphics in addition to the new anchor, who is earning an estimated $15 million a year.

CBS News has tightly held details about what the set will look like, how the theme, written by Oscar-winner James Horner (“Titanic”), will sound. There have been reports that Walter Cronkite’s voice may announce the newscast on-air. Likewise, there have been reports that Ms. Couric might walk into the newsroom portion of the set to speak with producers during the newscast.

Mr. McManus said these and other ideas have been discussed, but added the Cronkite decision had not been made by late last week and that some of the bells and whistles might be deployed later in the new life of the newscast. He said the new set looks “very much like the set Bob Schieffer was using, but it’s very updated, and the newsroom plays an integral part.”

No matter what, “Katie Couric’s Tuesday broadcast is probably going to be more scrutinized than anything since the Zapruder film,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University, referring to the amateur home video of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.

“For all the hype, a lot of people are going to forget to set their TiVo or not get home in time to see it-that kind of thing,” Mr. Thompson said. “But my guess is that there will be quite a few curiosity seekers on that first day, but that will settle down relatively quickly.”

Executives with ABC News and NBC News believe the ratings spike for “Evening News” could take a couple weeks or more to subside. This week is shortened by the Labor Day holiday and a prime-time football game Thursday on NBC that will displace “NBC Nightly News” in much of the country. Next week also includes the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

“It’ll settle down in a couple of weeks or a month,” said ABC News Senior VP Paul Slavin, who oversees “World News With Charles Gibson.”

NBC News President Steve Capus, Ms. Couric’s former boss at NBC News, where she spent 15 years as co-anchor of the powerful “Today” show, said, “We fully expect there to be sampling, and I suspect that will go on for a couple of weeks. I don’t make predictions about those numbers.

“There’s going to be a lot of curiosity, because it is impossible these days to escape the hype. People are going to want to see what all the fuss is about.”

By hype, Mr. Capus means the “political-style” promotional campaign, estimated to be worth $15 million, devised to launch Ms. Couric into the history books as the first woman to host a broadcast network’s flagship newscast solo.

Certainly no one can top the CBS-Couric campaign, but NBC News has made some bold moves, and both sides have taunted the other.

NBC News unrolled four-story-tall signs promoting “NBC Nightly News” and anchor Brian Williams, and the “Today” family, which now includes Meredith Vieira, the former ringmaster at “The View” and Mrs. Couric’s successor as Matt Lauer’s co-anchor, across from the CBS News Broadcast Center in Manhattan.

CBS has put signs promoting Mrs. Couric on transit buses and in the subway station underneath NBC News headquarters.

Mr. McManus insists Ms. Couric doesn’t have to lift “Evening News” out of its longtime third-place position in the flagship newscast race.

“No one here is expecting CBS to be No. 1 overnight,” he said. “I’m much more concerned about the ratings in September 2007 and 2008 than 2006.”

The men agree on one optimistic point: All this hullabaloo and change suggests these flagship newscasts cannot be written off as dinosaurs.

“They still perform an important function,” Mr. Slavin said.

“There isn’t an equivalent on cable or the Internet,” Mr. Thompson said.