Katie Couric Is Probably Leaving CBS Evening News. What Took So Long?

The anchor's ratings have been terrible since she started in 2006. Why hasn't the network gotten rid of her sooner?

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Reuters/Keith Bedford


You can be forgiven for reading with skepticism the reports that Katie Couric may soon leave the anchor desk at the CBS Evening News. Couric was originally said to have been leaving in April 2008, in a much-talked-about story in the Wall Street Journal. Her last weeks of work were supposedly to come soon after the inauguration of Barack Obama. That story was nearly three years ago, and Couric's still there.

Couric, who began hosting the show in 2006, had been drawing dismal ratings when the WSJ story was published. After that, viewership of the CBS Evening News dropped, and then dropped some more. Indeed, Katie Couric brought the newscast to historic lows, losing fully half the audience she had when she started. At this point, CBS has been eating those ratings for years (and paying Couric a reported $15 million annually). Why stop now? There's a strong argument to be made that Couric will be there forever.

But this may be the end of the Couric era at the Evening News. (The New York Post is reporting that Couric has been offered a role on 60 Minutes.) The real question is: What took so long?

Couric was definitely unqualified for the Evening News job. For example, if you'd tuned into NBC's Today show the morning the highly popular host announced her departure to take the anchor chair at CBS, you could have gotten a revealing look at how Couric and the Today show maintained its ratings dominance among morning shows. The first item was about a minor government official who'd been caught trying to seduce a young girl online. The second was about a kid testifying before Congress about his former career as an underaged online sex performer. And the third was about a date-rape drug. Child porn, child porn, and mickeys, all by 7:03 a.m.

—————

So how did Couric hang on for so long at the Evening News? Never underestimate the value of a smart PR campaign.

It's appropriate that Howard Kurtz, the former Washington Post media critic, now at The Daily Beast, started this year's round of Couric departure news.

Just a few days before the Couric frenzy prompted by that WSJ story in April 2008, Couric's people had made her available to Kurtz. He proffered a long, gingerly phrased piece in the WashPo, stressing her fundraising work, prominently noting the sexist coverage she was allegedly receiving (he didn't cite any)—and not mentioning anything about a plan for her to leave the Evening News.

Kurtz must have been mad as heck when he saw the Journal story that Wednesday. It reported that Couric probably wouldn't live out her contract, and might leave as soon as inauguration time.

It turns out that Couric and CBS had been talking about her departure, right under Kurtz's nose!

Kurtz wrote a new Post story, and found his own sources to confirm the Journal's. The positive spin he'd delivered about Couric's ratings just a few days earlier now morphed into, "The executives involved recognize that a significant improvement in the ratings is unlikely." The WSJ story was mentioned seven paragraphs down.

Once the Obama inauguration came around, CBS and Couric, perhaps wary of a spate of "Well, when is Couric going to leave?" stories, went on the PR offensive again. In the Los Angeles Times, for example, this piece selectively focused on a "five week period" to demonstrate that Couric's ratings had improved—and said that that was "on par" with what the newscast had earned the previous year.

What the paper didn't go out of its way to say was that there had just been a fairly high-profile election, which should have increased interest in Couric's program. It didn't ask why Couric's ratings had risen only after the voting had ended.

Presented by

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon.com and National Public Radio.

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