Q&A: CBS News’ Rick Kaplan

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Katie Couric’s newscast will originate from Baghdad on Tuesday — not from her New York anchor desk — on her first anniversary as anchor and managing editor of “The CBS Evening News.” After two nights in Iraq, “Evening News” will move to Damascus for the Thursday and Friday broadcasts before heading home.
Just before the announcement of Ms. Couric’s first major trip last week, her executive producer and traveling partner Rick Kaplan talked with TelevisionWeek National Editor Michele Greppi. The subjects included the working relationship between the $15 million-a-year anchor and the veteran network and cable news producer and executive; the reasons for their 12-day trip to the war zone; his recent trip to Cuba with CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus and hopes for setting up a bureau there; and other plans for the third-place network flagship newscast.
Mr. Kaplan returned to CBS News in March, after a long run at ABC News and shorter stints as president of CNN/U.S. and MSNBC, to succeed former “60 Minutes” producer Rome Hartman as executive producer of “Evening News.”
Mr. Kaplan has tightened and hardened what launched as a soft and featurey newscast seen by more than 13 million viewers who soon began dropping away, leaving “Evening News” an all-too-familiar distant third.
TelevisionWeek: You’re six months into your run as executive producer. How are things going?
Rick Kaplan: I’m enjoying it. It’s hard. It’s a very hard job, but it’s great. I like working with Katie. I like the staff. I like being back home at “CBS Evening News.” I really enjoy working for Sean.
TVWeek: What can you say about the trip that you and Sean McManus recently took to Cuba?
Mr. Kaplan: Sean and Ingrid [Ciprian-Matthews], our international editor, went down there for a number of reasons.
The Cubans know when you go down there you want to get an interview with Fidel Castro. The dumbest thing you can do when you go down there is try to get an interview with Fidel, because this is not what you do.
They know me pretty well. They need to know CBS News well. You go down there for the future. It’s like putting currency in the bank. There are going to be things that we need to cover more broadly. We’d love to get a bureau. We’d love to get permission to have a larger presence in Havana. We sat and talked with members of the government at the highest levels about all that. It was social in that way.
We were there for two days and we had six or seven meetings, all terrific. We did not see Fidel or ask to see him. It was all about the future as CBS and Cuba go forward.
TVWeek: What does “bureau” mean in this context?
Mr. Kaplan: Right now all we have is an office and one CBS News national in the office and some office help and a camera crew. You really want to have a little more than that.
First of all, there are some great stories in Cuba.
Second of all, should the government change ultimately big-time, at the point Cuba loses its Fidel — remember more than 60 percent of the country at a minimum has known no other leader than Fidel — this will be rather traumatic for them. When that happens, the story in Havana and the story in Miami will be extraordinary. We want to be in position to cover that … so we would like to have a larger presence.
Right now, only CNN has a bureau there.
Cuba’s an amazing story. We’re going to do a lot of business over the years, Cuba and the United States. Whatever is going on now, this is going to be quite the story for some time to come.
TVWeek: If you were to establish a bureau, what would it consist of, personnel-wise?
Mr. Kaplan: We didn’t get specific about that, but you’d like to have a full camera crew, a technician, a correspondent, a producer.
It’s not that you need a massive presence, but you want to have a presence that allows you to go out and do a story without having to fly people in to help.
What we tried to explain is, when you fly in to cover something, you’re always flying in because the match is burning. If you’re there in position, there’s all kinds of stories you would do that you wouldn’t [without a bureau]. So people would actually get a better understanding about what Cuba is all about if we actually had a bureau there.
TVWeek: Was there any sort of hint from the Cubans about a bureau?
Mr. Kaplan: No. I hate to sound like somebody from the State Department, but the talks were really warm and the conversations were terrific and I think we made a lot of progress in the relationships.
TVWeek: How many people whom you have dealt with in Cuba over the years are still in position?
Mr. Kaplan: All. My dealings over the years have been with Fidel, with [No. 2 official Ricardo] Alarcon and — one thing about the Cuban government and the Cuban leadership is that while it is young in many areas, it is stable.
TVWeek: You’ve planned a pretty complex trip with Katie Couric to Iraq and Syria. Should we expect big interviews at each stop?
Mr. Kaplan: Great coverage trips are not based on interviews. There may be great interviews, and I can’t imagine taking a trip that didn’t have great interviews, but that’s not how you gauge a trip.
When somebody goes over and interviews the head of a country … that’s wonderful. But that’s just not a lasting accomplishment and that’s not what we think will benefit this program, this network or Katie.
The way we look at it is that any trip we’re going to take, whether it’s to Minneapolis for the bridge or Virginia Tech, or if we go overseas or whatever we do, it’s in the stories we do.
Is it going to have a complement of great interviews? You know, in Minneapolis, she interviews the governor and she says, “Aren’t you somewhat accountable? You could have fixed that bridge,” that kind of thing. It’s holding those kinds of people accountable.
If you’re overseas, you want to get extraordinary interviews, but what you’re going to find distinguishes the trip is the caliber and content of the stories that we do. Where we go, the stories we choose to tell, the situations we describe, the situations we get into.
It’s the old “Nightline” in me. When we go somewhere, we want to come back and we want you to understand where we’ve been. That’s what makes a great trip. That’s the take-away for “The CBS Evening News.”
You will find the content on this program improving and increasing. No bulls—. I have a great anchor. I have a terrific journalist in Katie Couric. I am enjoying the hell out of working with her. She is really talented. She has a great touch and a great understanding and she cares deeply about the stories she covers; and you’re going to see that on any trip we take. You’re going to see that depth and that writing and that reporting and that curiosity and the proper skepticism come through in anything that lady does.
That’s what ultimately makes this program go forward and grow, and that’s why I like our chances in the coming years.
TVWeek: The timing of the trip is going to raise the question of why now, and there will be people who say it conveniently absents her while a deep-dish biography hits bookstores.
Mr. Kaplan: This is such a simple answer. What’s happening on Sept. 15? The report [from Gen. David Petraeus on the state of the war in Iraq]. If you’re going to go there, wouldn’t you go there before the report? You don’t have a choice. This is all about the report. All about the report.
TVWeek: You talked to the CBS affiliates last July about adding franchises to “Evening News.”
Mr. Kaplan: We’re spending a good deal of time on a franchise that will look after the infrastructure of the country.
One of the franchises is going to be to follow the money that you’ve paid in taxes as it gets frittered away on earmarks and fraudulent or questionable campaign spending.
Our normal franchises are “Eye on …” which is anything we choose to focus on.
We have “American Heroes,” which is obvious.
We have “Saving the World,” which is actually the oldest environmental series on any of the networks. It started the first time I was here with Walter Cronkite.
We have “Assignment America,” which is Steve Hartman. It’s starting to get a following that is reminiscent of Charlie Kuralt.
TVWeek: You also have talked about domestic travel.
Mr. Kaplan: We intend to, when we get time, get out to a number of our key affiliates and spend days with them. Our affiliates are our lifeblood. We’ll keep our word on that.
TVWeek: Where do things stand on the seamless transition from local news to “Evening News”?
Mr. Kaplan: I don’t keep track of that city by city, I just know that more cities are doing it now than were before. They have a very real economic need, so we’ll see. I think eventually they’ll all go seamless. It’s in their best interest and it’s in ours.

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