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Couric leaves, but will her viewers follow?

‘Today’ veteran will have to fight perceptions as she takes CBS anchor slot

Is too much weight given to gravitas?

Maybe the purists who are grumbling that Katie Couric doesn’t have the journalistic chops to take a seat once occupied by Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather are burying the lead.

This is no longer about playing to readers of Editor & Publisher or the Columbia Journalism Review. This is about jazzing up the product so the stockholders don’t mutiny.

CBS will plunk Couric into its anchor chair for “The CBS Evening News” and also throw her a “60 Minutes” bone primarily to raise the entertainment value of its news division.

The problem, of course, is whether the folks who tune in to watch the evening news really want that. The guess here: probably not.

Perceptions are hard to shatter. Dennis Miller was an accomplished yukster on the club circuit and on talk shows. But when ABC tried to stick him into the “Monday Night Football” booth, viewers squawked that he had no business there. They didn’t want a fawning fan, and they didn’t want wisecracks on a big third-and-10 with 2:13 remaining.

David Letterman probably shouldn’t have done “Cabin Boy.” Rosanne Barr made an error in judgment by mangling the national anthem at a Padres game. Magic Johnson was unwise to have hosted his own late-night talk show.

Obviously, Couric’s move from NBC’s “Today” show to the “CBS Evening News” is not so drastic a departure. While critics zero in on her cooking segments, her celebrity interviews and her chiseled gams, they should also note that she has paid her dues in journalism and has as much reporting experience in hard news as any of her contemporaries.

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But it almost doesn’t matter, because in this domain perception trumps qualifications. CBS is bringing her on not because she is a better reporter than Bob Schieffer, the man who currently occupies the job and who, by the way, has enjoyed a ratings spike during his brief tenure. They’re bringing her in to create star buzz.

In the short term, it will probably be a success. The move is already the talk of the industry, and has been for months. Initially, lots of people will switch over to Katie to see how she handles the big chair. Eventually the hoopla will dissipate and she’ll settle in. But will the audience?

All successful television shows need to achieve a comfort level with their audiences. Viewers didn’t make “Seinfeld” and “Friends” the ratings successes they were solely because of laughs. They also liked spending time with those characters every week.

There is no question NBC achieved that with the “Today” pairing of Couric and Matt Lauer, as evidenced by their continuous drubbing of the competition. But morning shows are a strange and delicate combination of international news, health tips, politics, celebrity plugging, road trips, disaster coverage, makeup and fashion dos and don’ts, exclusive interviews  and impromptu chats with people outside the studio. She’s grilling world leaders one minute and steaks the next.

When Couric begins her new job, the versatility that is her strength will be rendered moot. She will be a news reader. The comfort level that she had enjoyed with “Today” audiences because they liked having her along through life’s ups and downs, through the bitter truths and the easy frivolity, will have to be rebuilt from scratch. Viewers may find it unsettling to take their doses of hard reality night after night from America’s sweetheart.

It’s hard to knock Couric for making the leap. She became co-host of “Today” in 1991. That’s about 15 years or so of waking up at 3 a.m. Forget the multi-million dollar salary, the car service and the personal makeup artist. Sleeping in is the premier perk of an anchor job on the evening news.

And she is one of the rare individuals who can say, “Been there, done that” about a myriad of experiences and topics that span the globe. But anchoring a regular network news telecast? She hasn’t been there. She hasn’t done that. Only a privileged few have. The challenge is obviously a lure.

It’s also difficult to torch CBS over this. Since Rather bowed out, the network has been looking not just for a replacement, but a headliner. Les Moonves, the chairman of the CBS Corporation who engineered this hire, is a showman first and an executive second. In these days of increased competition and fragmenting audiences, that’s the necessary order. As coups go, hiring Couric to be the new Cronkite is the most momentous one available, save perhaps for appointing Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul as co-anchors.

Yet the transfer of trust, loyalty and viewing habits from the people who watch Couric at 7 a.m. to those who settle in to watch news at 6:30 p.m. is a tenuous operation. It could easily backfire. For every looky-loo who checks in to see how the experiment is working, there could be two that defect to the “NBC Nightly News” or ABC’s “World News Tonight” because they’re put off by heavy-handed use of personality to sell news.

Couric is a pro. She’ll do just fine with the nuts and bolts of the job. The issue is not whether she can make the change, but whether people want to change with her.

Altering the habits of viewers is chore enough, but the type of people who pride themselves on staying informed and look to their evening news for the straight dope are a particularly demanding strain of consumer who expect their journalists to be as serious as they are.

When she finally takes the anchor chair at CBS, Katie Couric will never seem more powerful, or more vulnerable.

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to He lives in Los Angeles.