CBS Taps Kaplan to Turn ‘News’ Around

Mar 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

CBS News President Sean McManus and Rick Kaplan, the executive producer hired to lift “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” agree on two major points:

  • The newscast is not broken.
  • The newscast can and needs to get better and “rise to the next level.”
  • Mr. McManus defined that next level as “to be the best in writing, reporting, story selection, anchor, to have a consistency where each night when you turn on ‘The CBS Evening News,’ you know what you’re going to get.”

    There had been recurring rumors about talks between Mr. Kaplan and Mr. McManus since late last year. But the news president said none of the gossip “had any foundation in fact” until late February, when Mr. McManus decided Mr. Kaplan was the man for the job and made him an offer.

    “It was the first time that I had ever had any serious discussions with him about a role at CBS News,” Mr. McManus said. “It came together very, very quickly.”

    Viewers are unlikely to see dramatic changes in the newscast right away, the men said.

    “It’s going to take a long time,” Mr. McManus said.

    “We want the show to evolve. I’m going to take it one show at a time,” said Mr. Kaplan, just hours after the announcement that he would replace Rome Hartman.

    Mr. Hartman didn’t see the change coming until he was told of it after last Wednesday’s broadcast. It was unclear at week’s end what Mr. Hartman’s next assignment will be. He was a producer for “60 Minutes” before being tapped to launch Ms. Couric’s newscast.

    Former CNN and MSNBC president Mr. Kaplan and Mr. McManus said Ms. Couric wasn’t informed until Wednesday of the impending change. Ms. Couric, who like her male predecessors also is managing editor of the nightly news program, accrued such clout as co-anchor of NBC’s powerful “Today” that she could make or break an executive producer. She has done so more than once.

    Mr. Kaplan, who at 6’7″ is more than a foot taller than Ms. Couric, said they talked heart-to-heart over two boxes of cookies Mr. Kaplan took to her place Wednesday night.

    The two have never worked together, but they have had a warm relationship for a number of years, Mr. Kaplan said.

    He was a star producer and Emmy magnet at ABC News before taking on Sisyphean challenges as president of CNN and later MSNBC. The move to CBS News brings him back to the network where he worked before his ABC stint.

    Mr. Hartman reported to Mr. McManus. Mr. Kaplan will report to Paul Friedman, the CBS News VP who oversees hard news programming and newsgathering as well as special events. That makes Mr. Friedman the de facto No. 2 executive in the division. The two men worked together and sometimes butted heads at ABC.

    Mr. McManus said he has no doubt there will be “very spirited discussions, and that’s great. But I don’t expect any issues with the two of them working together.” He also said he would not have made the move unless Mr. Friedman was “completely, 100 percent, enthusiastically supportive.”

    Mr. McManus said nothing in particular provoked the timing of the shakeup.

    “It was not any one thing, just a feeling the time is right to make this move,” he said.

    “Evening News” launched Sept. 5 to some 13 million viewers. CBS then watched Couric’s ratings steadily erode to 7.5 million viewers, which leaves the perennial third-place program slightly deeper in the cellar than her interim predecessor, Bob Schieffer, was a year ago in total viewers.

    Ms. Couric’s slightly younger audience has, however, allowed CBS News to say the newscast was in a more revenue-friendly third place in that demographic.

    Ms. Couric, who just marked her six-month anniversary on “Evening News,” last week told a Manhattan community audience that she is “patient” about the ratings. She noted, though, that she is becoming resigned to the evidence that viewers who watch evening newscasts want the day’s news rather than the softer segments that marked her newscast when it debuted.

    “No one has ever said we’re happy with third place-in fact, quite the opposite. We are extremely unhappy,” Mr. McManus said. “The important thing for me is that we’re not showing growth. I have to believe, if we put on a better show, more people will watch.”

    In the meantime, Ms. Couric is at work on a prime-time special for May, with plans to do a couple more in the next year and to increase her profile on “60 Minutes.” And Mr. McManus is demanding steady demographic, if not viewership, growth.

    “I still believe that the investment we’ve made in Katie will pay off both financially and in terms of perception,” he said.