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CBS trying to shake up newscast format

Network must assume Americans are connected throughout day
/ Source: The Associated Press

Katie Couric isn’t the only thing new at the “CBS Evening News.”

Her first two weeks as anchor indicate that CBS is making some subtle but significant changes to a tradition-bound format, beyond the “Free Speech” commentary that has attracted the most attention since Couric’s Sept. 5 debut.

At the bedrock is the assumption that many Americans no longer stay disconnected from the world through their workday and need a 22-minute summary on television to catch up.

Beyond the hiring of Couric, it’s essential to shake things up at a broadcast that’s been third in the ratings for years and part of an institution where all of the networks have been steadily losing viewers, said Sean McManus, CBS News president.

“If you are going to grow the audience, it’s apparent that you’re not going to grow the audience by doing the exact same things that have been done for years,” he said.

The changes are most noticeable in the story count. While the third and fourth biggest stories of the day usually merit a correspondent’s report on ABC and NBC, Couric will frequently breeze through a sentence or two and direct viewers to the CBS News Web site for further details.

Besides “Free Speech,” the time freed up is often devoted to an enterprise story, interview or backgrounder that’s not necessarily tied to events of the day. They have included a newsmaking interview with CIA leaker Richard Armitage, an interview with Wal-Mart’s chief executive and the story of a man who foiled a New York City subway terrorist plot who now feels let down by the government.

“What we’re trying to do is dig a little deeper and maybe tell people some things that they may not have heard about,” said Rome Hartman, the broadcast’s executive producer.

Changing world of newsThe new direction was most obviously signaled when Couric led her very first broadcast not with breaking news, but a Lara Logan enterprise story on suicide attacks in Afghanistan. The decision looked sadly prescient when, three days later, a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. military convoy in Kabul, killing 16 people.

The flip side is ignoring or kissing off a story that CBS’ rivals deemed important to understanding what went on in the world that day.

CBS did nothing Tuesday, for example, on the reaction to President Bush’s prime-time speech on terrorism the night before. McManus said he felt no new ground was broken, and the speech was adequately analyzed during the network’s special report Monday night.

CBS also gave only a brief mention to the Senate Intelligence Committee report concluding that Saddam Hussein was hostile to al-Qaida, despite the Bush administration trying to tie Iraq to the war on terror. Hartman said he didn’t believe the report added much new, but conceded in hindsight that his judgment was open to question.

“If you’re going to do something different, you have to occasionally be willing to not do something that the other two networks are doing,” McManus said. “But if you’ve been No. 3 for 10 years, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t do that. Putting on the exact same show the other two networks do every night would seem to be counter-intuitive.”

The first four nights of Couric’s broadcast included a total of 19 minutes of hard news, with the rest features, interviews and commentary, according to the Tyndall Report, which studies broadcast news content. By contrast, ABC’s “World News” had 46 minutes of hard news, and NBC’s “Nightly News” 44 minutes.

That’s already led to whispers that CBS is now the “softer” newscast, somewhat ironic given that Couric predecessor Dan Rather for years used “hard news” as a mantra and a way to subtly tar his competitors.

McManus admits that bothers him, and said it’s a false impression.

“We cover a lot of hard news and will continue to do so,” he said. “I think adding perspective and taking a slightly different approach is also something worth trying.”

It has been common for years for all of the broadcasts to wrap up most nights with lighter features, he said.

“I know NBC did giant panda bears (on Tuesday) and we did jumping fish,” he said, “so I would call that a draw.”

The changes CBS is making are a lot to digest at the same time it is introducing a new anchor, said news analyst Andrew Tyndall. Oddly, the better time to experiment would have been during Bob Schieffer’s interim anchorship, but Schieffer came in with a clear vision of how he wanted to do the newscast, he said.

“That’s one of the reasons the show doesn’t quite work at the moment,” Tyndall said. “The best way to make changes is one at a time.”

Viewers haven’t rendered anything close to a final verdict. During her first seven days, Couric finished first in the ratings five times, second once and last once. CBS is encouraged by a 65 percent increase over last year in viewers aged 25-to-54, the demographic most attractive for news programs.

Couric generally directs viewers to the Web site at least twice a broadcast, and that site saw a 57 percent increase in traffic for her first week compared to the week before, the network said.

The “Free Speech” segment has been perhaps the most talked-about element of an evening news program since Peter Jennings’ “person of the week” or Dan Rather’s “courage” signoff, and it’s gotten its fair share of ridicule.

McManus said the nightly commentary by outsiders is “working very well.” But he said the network will monitor it closely and may no longer include it every day.

The CBS News president conceded the risk in stepping out on a limb. Network evening newscasts have traditionally watched each other closely, with any changes to the form typically incremental and made in tandem.

It is, after all, the “CBS Evening News” and viewers may have certain expectations.

“Quite frankly, if it doesn’t work you can always go back to the traditional newscast,” he said. “Adjustments are easily made. But I think it’s something worth trying.”