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Lay off Katie Couric! CBS is to blame

The network used a celebrity ploy to boost ratings and it completely backfired.
/ Source: contributor

Most people do not look good early in the morning. Katie Couric suffers from the opposite problem.

It has nothing whatsoever to do with her physical attractiveness, but rather with her mere presence. In the morning, she was a popular personality as one of the co-hosts of NBC’s TODAY. But since she opted for the night shift as anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” not enough people seem to want to look at her. ( is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)

The Wall Street Journal published a story on Wednesday that quoted unnamed “CBS News executives” as well as “people close to Katie Couric” as saying she will leave the network before her contract runs out in 2011. Both Couric and CBS downplayed the story, but they didn’t deny it either.

She signed the deal, worth a reported $15 million per year, in 2006 amid trumpets, bunting and confetti. But because her newscast has consistently been third among the networks by a considerable margin, the trumpets have quieted, the bunting is frayed and the confetti has been kicked into the wind, down the street and past the window where they broadcast TODAY.

CBS falls victim to the cult of personalityThe failure of Couric to attract an audience is not about her expertise. She is an accomplished journalist who has covered stories all over the world. She has interviewed both the charming and the cantankerous. She has the gentle touch needed to put a grieving family at ease on national television, and the tenacity to keep a mendacious world leader epoxied to the hot seat.

In fact, the failure of Katie Couric in the seat once occupied by Walter Cronkite is not her failure at all, but rather that of the network that secured her services.  And it’s a failure we can all revel in, whether we like Couric or not.

The cult of personality was working at a fever pitch when it lured Couric away from TODAY. CBS didn’t want a veteran newsperson with integrity and experience; it already had that in Bob Schieffer, who attracted a modest increase in audience for the “CBS Evening News” after Dan Rather departed. It wanted a celebrity to jack up the ratings.

Now, if for example the producers of ABC’s “The View” wanted to do the same for their show and went out and hired Angelina Jolie or Madonna to be a co-host, the numbers surely would climb, because the audience for that show has a constant thirst for celebrity juice.

But the people who watch evening news do so because they want the news. Pure, unadulterated news. They don’t care who delivers it, as long as it’s somebody they can believe. It could be Schieffer, it could be Brian Williams of “NBC Nightly News,” it could be Charles Gibson of ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

What it can’t be is someone who arrives with much ballyhoo to artificially inject celebrity into a news broadcast the way Britney Spears recently did on CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother.”

As television stunts go, Britney’s worked, Katie’s hasn’t.

Good news for journalism? Couric’s flop is a sad development for all of us who like and appreciate her work. But it’s fabulous for news hounds, who have been taking it on the muzzle lately as newspaper staffs are pounded thin like pieces of scaloppini, networks cut back on foreign and domestic bureaus, and local broadcast news outlets continue to lay off everybody but the people ordering the layoffs.

The line has to be drawn somewhere. A front has to be established in this war against news gathering. A serum has to be administered to halt this plague of journalism-eating bacteria.

It’s all about money, naturally. As corporations answer to more and more complaints from stockholders about the profitability of news organizations, the news business itself becomes diminished through budget cuts until it is nothing more than “Survivor” with computers and phones and slightly better attire.

The Couric gambit proved that there are still citizens out there who have a vague recollection of the Constitution from civics or history class, who remember the First Amendment, and who had believed that the free flow of information would never be hindered by something as crass as profit.

This is not to dump the decline of civilization as we know it at the pricey pumps of Katie Couric, because she has always been a champion of all that good stuff.

She is an excellent journalist who did nothing more than sign a contract for millions in order to take on a challenge. I would venture to guess that it’s something just about any journalist — from Cronkite to Rather, from Chet Huntley to David Brinkley, from Barbara Walters to Diane Sawyer — would do in the time it takes to say, “We’ll be right back.”

If Couric does walk early, the tar and feathers should be delivered to the executive offices at Black Rock. CBS has, after all, the most prestigious news organization in broadcasting, the one over which the spirit of Edward R. Murrow still hovers. It should have been above ploys. It should have resisted the temptation to play the celebrity game and instead worked on making its news division the best in the business.

Above all else, it should have been as smart as the people who watch the evening news.