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.
Similarly, keeping one's ratings "on par" with the previous year when this particular year had featured the most cacophonous election in a generation, complete with a historic financial meltdown, isn't much of an achievement.
That was more than two years ago, and Couric's ratings have occasionally gone up but have mostly gone down, and always stayed in a distant third place. (Ratings leader NBC as a rule of thumb has a viewership about 50 percent higher than Couric's.)
In April 2008, Couric's show had the network's worst week ever, with an average of 5.4 million viewers. In June 2009, the show had scorched that dismal benchmark. And a year after that it did it again, reaching an all-time low of 4.89 million viewers. Couric's numbers in the demo—that is to say, in the cruel economics of TV advertising, which focuses on non-senior citizens—was fewer than 1.5 million.
So good press helps. But that doesn't work inside a company, particularly a public one like CBS. It's worth noting how damaging Couric's tenure has been for CBS. The network is part of a stand-alone company much different from the corporate homes of the news divisions of NBC or CNN. As the Journal noted, its news operation's profits are much more integral to its company's bottom line. The Couric hire marginalized the CBS news division and drained its funds. (With Couric's salary the network could have hired literally 100 actual journalists to report news for viewers.)
Why has it taken so long for CBS to do something?
Well, it's complicated. CBS News used to be the gold standard of the industry, of course, but that was long ago, before MTV (i.e., Viacom) bought it. It was then pared down and then spun off again as part of Viacom capo Sumner Redstone's myriad financial machinations.
CEO Les Moonves brought Couric in as a Hail Mary pass, hoping the buzz would make her insanely high salary worth it to the network. To this day Couric still has the support of both Mooves and Redstone.
Still, the Couric follies has been a failure for stockholders, certainly, to see. How do they justify it?
There are two possible answers. One is that the pair didn't want to take on a PR blow in the middle of the punishing financial crisis of 2008 and 2009. Moves to investigate a merger with CNN went nowhere. And once the company's stock price began to recover, Couric's abysmal ratings weren't getting much attention.
The second, however, may be the real reason. What options did the pair have? Few people want to see a news digest show at 6:30 in the evening anymore, and those that do like Brian Williams and the NBC news team. Bob Shieffer, Couric's predecessor, was mired in third place as well and the network felt it had to do something. So it threw some money at the problem and bought a celebrity. When that didn't work, what's plan B? Another celebrity?
Indeed, at this point, it's hard not to argue with those who contend that if a CNN deal isn't possible, CBS news should just close up shop and go home. I think all of the cable networks' news operations are over-rated, but it is true that there are three fairly substantive news groups covering world and political affairs now, not counting the BBC. CBS doesn't have a cable network to spread out the costs and keep a corps of actual journalists working on a given day. 60 Minutes, plus an audience of 5 million watching 22 minutes of programming a night isn't enough to maintain a news operation of any substance. Who would miss it anyway?
Perhaps having nothing better to do, for the last three years Moonves and CBS have just doubled down on Couric, draining the news operation of tens of millions of dollars and watching the outfit's wounded reputation fester.
It's a great story. Howard Kurtz should get on it.
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