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Couric ready to just sit down, do the news

Former 'Today' co-host Katie Couric says she doesn't feel pressure to 'save the network' as she makes the jump from morning TV to anchor of CBS's evening news.
EARNS CBS
Katie Couric, CBS News anchor and correspondent answers questions from members of the press about her upcoming season of the \"CBS Evening News with Katie Couric\" in Pasadena, Calif., in this file photo of July 16, 2006. CBS Corp. posted higher earnings for its second quarter Thursday Aug. 3, 2006 but the broadcasting companys revenues declined on weakness in its radio division. Couric is scheduled to go on the air for CBS September 5.Lucas Jackson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

After months of preparation and promotion, after all the words written about Katie Couric's new job as "CBS Evening News" anchor, she'd like nothing more now than to just sit down and report the news.

That will finally happen on Sept. 5, when Couric tells the day's top story from the set in a rebuilt newsroom on Manhattan's West Side.

"It's been very invigorating just to take a step back and talk about approaches and things we could do differently and things we might be able to try," she said. "Obviously, I'm excited to put theory to practice and see what works and what doesn't and just actually be doing the job itself instead of talking about it."

Couric's decision to leave NBC's "Today" show after 15 years had a remarkable domino effect on the television industry, and the implications will first be felt next month.

NBC waited only a day after Couric publicly announced her exit to pick Meredith Vieira from "The View" to join the "Today" cast. With its own hole to fill, "The View" selected Rosie O'Donnell to take Vieira's place as its moderator. Vieira starts Sept. 13 and O'Donnell debuts on Sept. 5.

Fortunes are at stake, depending on how viewers accept these changes. The top-rated "Today" show — television's most profitable program — earned $274 million in revenue during the first five months of 2006, a full $100 million more than second-place "Good Morning America," according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

The numbers aren't as big at night, partly because the evening news shows are only 30 minutes long. But "CBS Evening News" still earned $81 million this year through May, with ratings leader "Nightly News" collecting $88 million, Nielsen said.

The new face of a bruised news division
Couric is becoming the public face of a news division that has ranked third in the ratings for years and was bruised by the tumultuous exit of Dan Rather.

Pressure, anybody?

"I think maybe the expectations are ginned up by the media itself," Couric told The Associated Press. "The people at home, those who are interested in seeing what CBS News does, will watch. I never felt that I was hired to, quote-unquote, save the network."

She said she has realistic expectations, "and I think most people around the country really aren't thinking about it all that much, to be honest."

Her ascension caps a remarkable two-year period of instability for the evening newscasts, beginning with Tom Brokaw's retirement at NBC "Nightly News." Peter Jennings died of lung cancer and the Elizabeth Vargas-Bob Woodruff team that replaced him at ABC's "World News" was derailed after Woodruff was injured in Iraq. Bob Schieffer has filled in as CBS anchor since Rather left in March 2005.

Now with Brian Williams in place at NBC, Charles Gibson at ABC and Couric, the networks have the anchors they hope will be in place for several years.

"All of the broadcasts are now in a position to move full steam ahead," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News." "From a competitive standpoint, that's terrific. When your competition plays better, you play better."

The moves of Gibson and Couric from morning news to evening adds stature to newscasts that have been the subject of countless premature obituaries, he said.

In just months, the job of evening news anchor has changed markedly; it's no longer a half-hour behind the desk each night and quarterbacking coverage when a major story breaks out. ABC has an Internet newscast in the afternoon, and NBC's Williams contributes to a video blog every morning and writes his own Web log in the afternoon.

Couric is diving right in, too. She'll run down the day's top stories each afternoon on the Web, participate in a Web log, record a one-minute "Katie Couric Reports" each day for radio, Internet and wireless users, and anchor CBS Radio's 5 p.m. newscast.

"I think that the anchor needs to have a presence through a variety of platforms today if you want your product to have as much reach as it can," she said. "So I'm going to be multitasking as much as I can."

Don't forget her reports for "60 Minutes." The first, timed to the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks, will air Sept. 10.

Small hints about what a Couric newscast will look like have emerged. A new regular feature, "Free Speech," will give selected experts time to opine on issues. A new medical correspondent has been hired. Schieffer will have a periodic role from Washington, but it's unclear exactly what he will do.

Dangers in making sudden, dramatic changes
Couric and her executive producer, Rome Hartman, are well aware of the danger in trying to dramatically and suddenly change a programming form with among the oldest audiences in TV.

But the newscasts have been "consistently formulaic" so that even slight retooling will make it feel fresh, she said.

Since Couric is the first woman hired specifically to anchor a network evening newscast herself, there's a lot riding on her success, said Deborah Potter, a former CBS News reporter and now executive director of the News Lab think tank.

It's a long time coming in an industry where, according to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, 40 percent of the journalists in local news are women, Potter said.

CBS would be wise not to expect any sudden miracles in the ratings. Despite all of the personnel changes, the ratings pecking order — NBC first, ABC second and CBS last — is exactly the same as it was two years ago before Brokaw retired. Viewers don't change habits easily.

"That's one of the downsides of this business: the demand for instant results," Potter said. "Add $15 million and stir and we get a large audience. There probably will be a bump (in the ratings for CBS) and then it will settle back, and I hope she will settle in and begin building an audience."