Couric: Quality trumps ratings for newscasts

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NEW YORK -- "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric said Tuesday night that she tries hard not to let ratings pressures get to her.

After a bright start six months ago this week, the CBS newscast has failed to make much headway against rivals NBC and ABC, remaining solidly in third place in viewership and the adults 25-54 demographic. But without specifically mentioning the third-place showing and acknowledging that her bosses may be chagrined to find out, Couric said she doesn't get stressed out about ratings.

"I've never really obsessed over ratings," Couric said. "I want to turn out a quality newscast."

Couric's comments came during a wide-ranging interview on stage in front of an audience at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was interviewed by her friend, psychotherapist and "Today" contributor Dr. Gail Saltz. It's part of a series of interviews with famous people that Saltz conducts regularly at the 92nd Street Y.

Couric said that she's got a really exciting job but "it's not my entire being," citing her children and her zest for life and reading as other parts of her life.

"I do try to keep it in perspective because it would eat me alive," Couric said.

At the same time, said she was keenly aware of the pressures of being the first solo female anchor of a nightly newscast and an anchor in an era where the 6:30 p.m. newscast isn't the sole source of news.

"I knew that this was a genre that wasn't going to be as strong as it was in the past," Couric said. "(But) somehow I thought it was a genre worth trying and trying to reinvigorate."

Under Couric's tenure, "CBS Evening News" has been celebrated and derided by critics for trying new things in the traditionally staid world of network evening news. She talked about the truncated nature of the 22-minute newscast and how different it was from when she worked at "Today" and how it's been interesting trying to experiment with the format.

"People are very accustomed to their newscast playing out in a certain way," Couric said.

At the same time she pledged to continue to experiment, and talked up a series of features they call "The American Spirit" that profile Americans whose efforts have improved their communities and have the potential to solve problems nationwide.

"I think we'll be able to experiment down the road," she said of the newscast.

Most of the questioning and Couric's remarks focused on her life outside of her job, her upbringing in Arlington, Va., her early career, the fatal illness of husband Jay Monahan and the challenges and importance of raising her two daughters. Monahan died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 42; Couric has been heavily involved in raising awareness of colon cancer detection and also millions of dollars for cancer research, something she said she will continue to do.

Couric raised another idea during the gathering of trying to get all the networks -- not just CBS -- to run a two-hour program and telethon to raise money for cancer research. While the idea hasn't gone beyond the talking stage, she said she'd like to try to have the program raise awareness and money at a time when the funds for cancer research are being cut.

"Cancer funding is being cut, and we really need to display the national political will to invest in research," she said.

Couric also revealed that she didn't imagine herself as an anchor when she became a journalist after graduating the University of Virginia; quite the opposite, her early experience in front of the camera at CNN and at a local station was less than encouraging.

"I was discouraged from anchoring early in my career," Couric said. "News executives didn't see me as an anchor. They saw me as a scrappy street reporter and not particularly glamorous.

"This is before I dyed my hair blonde," Couric joked.
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