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‘Lame duck’ Couric hurting CBS News

The stories about her future leave CBS with another worry: whether the perception that she will leave early may erode the audience further and force a change sooner than anticipated.
/ Source: The Associated Press

How will perceptions of Katie Couric as a lame duck affect the “CBS Evening News”?

There are growing feelings within CBS News that if Couric’s ratings don’t significantly improve, she might leave her anchor position after the election or inauguration of a new president. Her contract ends in 2011.

Speculation about her future isn’t new — it began less than a year after she took over the show in Sept. 2006. But a flurry of news stories this week pushed the question into the headlines. Couric discussed the issue — with no resolution — in a February meeting with her agent, CBS Corp. chairman Leslie Moonves and CBS News President Sean McManus, according to a report in Friday’s New York Times that was confirmed to The Associated Press by two people with knowledge of the meeting.

Couric’s broadcast sunk into third place in the evening news ratings about a month after her arrival from NBC News. Despite changes in the producer and focus, the show has consistently lagged about two million viewers per night behind NBC and ABC.

CBS executives say they’re happy with the show and believe it stacks up well against its rivals. But at some point a failure to be competitive and Couric’s reported unhappiness may force a change.

The stories about her future leave CBS with another worry: whether the perception that she will leave early may erode the audience further and force a change sooner than anticipated.

“It’s a very legitimate issue,” said Rome Hartman, executive producer at the “CBS Evening News” when Couric took over. He was replaced by Rick Kaplan and now produces the Peabody Award-winning “BBC World News America.”

Hartman said he’s rooting for Couric and thinks her broadcast now is just as good as her rivals’.

“The truth is you just do your work,” he said. “That’s what she is doing and I think that’s what the people who are on the broadcast are doing. But it’s harder. It makes it harder to have a spring in your step.”

Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies evening news content, said Couric’s status could make it tougher for the broadcast to get big interviews. But he didn’t expect it would matter much to viewers.

“I believe it’s always been that people watch the news to watch the news and not to watch the people who are delivering it,” he said.

Some people close to Couric’s situation had hopes that the attention paid to her status could help her. “It does remind people that she’s there,” said one person, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.

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That wasn’t the case on Thursday, when her show was seen by 5.6 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research. It averaged just over six million viewers Monday through Wednesday.

Couric was in Washington on Thursday to interview Gen. David Petraeus, then traveled to Chicago for a piece on a day in the life of Democratic presidential contender Obama. She then heads to London to interview British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The Obama interview allows Couric to do some personal lobbying, and perhaps even appeal to a little sympathy. CBS News has been anxious to get Obama to agree to an April 27 debate in North Carolina with Hillary Clinton that would be televised in prime-time. CBS says Clinton has agreed, but Obama hasn’t. Couric would moderate.

CBS has been frustrated by its inability to give Couric exposure on a presidential debate. NBC anchor Brian Williams has moderated five debates this presidential season; ABC’s Charles Gibson will do his third next week.