CBS cuts loose for convention webcast

Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer, Jeff Greenfield go for youth vote

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- It's about 10 minutes after Sen. John McCain has finished his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Moments after the CBS News TV coverage ends, the cameras are still rolling on Katie Couric, Bob Schieffer and Jeff Greenfield. But this time it's for the Web, and they aren't immediately talking about McCain's historic speech. Earth, Wind and Fire is playing as the balloons drop behind them.

"This is the best song I've heard all week, I have to be honest with you," Couric tells them. "On the music front, not too good." Greenfield offers that he heard bluegrass standard "Rocky Top" outside and Schieffer, who leads a band himself, mentions Chuck Berry.

It's not exactly what you'd expect out of the box from the three veteran journalists on the "CBS Evening News." But this isn't that vaunted newscast. Instead, it's a bridge between that older-skewing telecast and the network's attempts to draw younger viewers.

Every convention night for the past two weeks -- with the exception of last Monday, when hurricane coverage trumped the Republican National Convention -- Couric and the CBS News team transitioned almost immediately from the hour or so of network TV to a 30- to 50-minute live webcast available at CBSNews.com, CNET and other places.

"I'll be sad when the webcast ends. It's been fun," Couric said Thursday afternoon before the final night of convention coverage. "It's given me a chance to express myself and show my personality a little bit, to be edgier and occasionally flip, and hopefully funny every once in a while."

Couric interviewed guests, talked to CBS News correspondents and analysts -- which she dubbed "the best political team in the universe," a riff on CNN -- and answered viewer e-mail. The interviews ranged from a long one with Caroline Kennedy at the DNC and an exclusive with Valerie Biden to actress Morgan Fairchild and comedian Mo Rocca.

Where else on network news, asked webcast producer Tony Maciulis, can you find political analysis from Cyndi Lauper? (Lauper dropped in as an impromptu guest one night at the DNC.)

The convention webcast is the brainchild of Rick Kaplan, the executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" who as president of MSNBC pioneered programming that years ago merged online and traditional TV. He saw in the conventions an opportunity to allow Couric and the other journalists to cut loose a bit.

"This is really from Katie's heart," Kaplan said from his makeshift office in St. Paul. "It's a way to reach out to viewers and users in a way that I think we'll all be reaching out in just a few years."

Because it's still a CBS News product, it retains the network's production quality. But Kaplan likes the rough around the edges look that the Web allows.

"It's really unplugged," Kaplan said. "It doesn't matter if someone's camera cord is showing and you don't have the time limits (of network TV). You do the show for as long as the content holds up."

Couric said that she's been "jazzed" by the opportunity the Web offers, particularly to go beyond the spontaneity of "Today" and certainly the tight strictures of the evening news world she now inhabits.

CBS News won't release how many streams the webcast got during the two weeks of the conventions, other than to say that it exceeded expectations. It said that straight usage numbers don't take into account the many ways Internet users consume content.

Unfortunately, at least for right now, the webcast was only a two-week deal. While Kaplan and Couric would love to continue it, they say that it works best in the context of a political convention or another big story like that.

"It's hard to build (the webcast) if it's not around a bigger event," Couric said. "But maybe it will get people thinking about using our resources (on the Web)."

But Kaplan said that it will come back in some form, perhaps during the four presidential and vice presidential debates.

"We're going to do this in the future. I don't know when but we're going to do it," he said. "This was an experiment that went very well, and it's a harbinger of extraordinary things on the Web."
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