The Miscasting of Katie Couric

Illustration: Gluekit

What her departure means as network news struggles to find an agenda (and viewers).

If you watched Katie Couric's May 19 valedictory on her five years as anchor of CBS Evening News, you saw living proof of the confusion that marred her tenure.

The network news divisions break down coverage as follows: The morning time slot specializes in human interest, celebrity and lifestyle tips; Sunday morning is for politics; primetime magazines are the home of investigative journalism and in-depth profiles. And the evening newscasts are where national and international hard news takes the lead.

CBS Evening News under the just-departed Couric and her executive producer Rick Kaplan made efforts to present just such a serious newscast. In 2010, for example, Evening News spent more time than NBC Nightly News or ABC World News in covering three essential beats: the economy, the midterm elections and U.S. foreign policy. Under Couric and Kaplan, Evening News also took the lead in examining the impact of economic hard times with series like "The Other America."

Yet Couric's self-image as an anchor was clearly at odds with the news agenda. Her five-minute summary of her tenure did not include a single mention of the biggest event of the past five years: the Great Recession. No mention of the financial crisis of 2008, the real estate bubble or double-digit unemployment.

Instead, she portrayed the anchor's job as a series of one-on-ones with the powerful (George W. Bush, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) or the fleetingly famous (Valerie Plame, Chesley Sullenberger) or the celebrated (Michael J. Fox, Alex Rodriguez). For field reporting, she showed herself in a helicopter flying over wildfires and oil spills, comforting an orphan in Haiti, watching a royal kiss outside Buckingham Palace.

Couric's final memory of her tenure as an anchor was coaxing Clint Eastwood to repeat his catchphrase: "Go ahead. Make my day."

Such confusion is evidence that Couric, schooled in the personality-driven journalism of the morning time slot, was miscast in the role of evening anchor. At ABC World News, Diane Sawyer has taken the opposite tack. Instead of trying to shoehorn her persona into a hard-news format, she has chosen to change the newscast. It is now the least serious, most lifestyle-obsessed of the three network newscasts.

Couric's confusion is not simply miscasting. It is also a symptom of the devilishly difficult -- even contradictory -- tasks facing the network news divisions, which were down another 3.4 percent in aggregate viewership in 2010.

The newscasts must simultaneously cater to the past, the present and the future.

Honoring the past means continuing to provide a nightly product in an anachronistic 24-hour news cycle, catering to the programming flow of broadcast affiliates and dependent on lead-in audiences. In that context, two other recent departures might be more significant than Couric's: ABC is losing the benefits of Oprah Winfrey, and Dick Ebersol's resignation from NBC Sports might signify that Comcast is loath to pony up for NBC News' biennial Olympian shot in the ratings arm.

In the present, certainly these musical chairs at the anchor desk are not enough to shake up the ratings pecking order. NBC has been a perennial leader, whether under Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams; ABC has been in second place since the days of Peter Jennings and Charles Gibson; CBS in third since the Dan Rather era.

What is more important in the present is offering a 24-hour presence online as a destination for those seeking breaking news. Four of the top six sites for the record news audience that followed the assassination of Osama bin Laden were operated by legacy TV news operations: NBC News, CNN, ABC News and Fox News, according to Experian.

In the future, audiences will not get their video news by watching television or even by visiting a Web destination. The news will come to them, spread virally by members of viewers' social networks. The major viral news-video hit of the past five years belonged to Couric: her 2008 interview with Sarah Palin. It could turn out that the style of journalism Couric showcased in her Evening News sendoff -- the personalized, one-on-one newsmaker interview -- will fare better on social networks than on broadcast networks. To that end, it makes sense that Couric (at press time) is finalizing a deal for an ABC daytime show; she will likely find a more receptive showcase in daytime than under the constrained format of an evening newscast.

Meanwhile, CBS' intention of shifting the Evening News agenda under anchor Scott Pelley to something that resembles a nightly 60 Minutes sounds like a different yet cogent idea for retooling the newscast to be forward-looking: Produce packages with a half-life longer than the 24-hour news cycle so they can be distributed twice -- once over the air, then virally by viewers to their friends.

If Lady Gaga can do it, why not Pelley?           

Andrew Tyndall is publisher of Tyndall Report, which monitors network television news.