Ups, downs surround the evening newscasts


NEW YORK -- No matter how much pundits and media writers like to talk about the impending death of the evening newscast, something always comes around to bring it back into the headlines.

Last week, it was the New York magazine cover story that portrayed Katie Couric as trying to come to grips with her tumultuous first year as anchor/managing editor of "CBS Evening News." It's full of juicy details, from Couric's having to demand that the women's bathroom be renovated to a bizarre incident in which she acknowledged slapping around a news editor for using the word "sputum."

The story made it OK again to ask how long will Couric last as anchor. The media plays this game every couple of weeks, after another historic low for the newscast or an article like last week's or another one earlier this year in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which an unnamed CBS source speculated that Couric would depart after the 2008 elections.

The latest media firestorm was so great that CBS News president Sean McManus was moved to comment to the Associated Press that Couric isn't going anywhere. Not coincidentally, CBS News said last week that Couric would headline its election coverage. It's all a far cry from the optimism that attended Couric's ascension to the anchor chair in September.

But more interesting than Couric's quick drop to third place is what's happened at another newscast, something that hasn't generated the kind of coverage that follows Couric's seemingly every move. It's the rise of Charles Gibson and ABC's "World News."

ABC had been knocked back on its heels with the dual blow of Peter Jennings' passing and Bob Woodruff's near-death experience. Gibson came aboard in spring 2006 before the run-up to Couric's debut. "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" continued its winning ways, with Williams the only permanent anchor of the Big Three for some time.

But while much of the attention was focused on Couric's ratings woes, something happened. Under the steady hand of Gibson and executive producer Jon Banner, who deserves so much credit for keeping the newscast on track after all the heartbreak, ABC's newscast stabilized. At the same time, "NBC Nightly News" -- which had dominated for so long under Tom Brokaw and through the seamless transition to Williams -- began to falter.

This spring, "World News" not only overtook "NBC Nightly News" but stayed on top by a small yet comfortable margin. Last week, ABC marked its 11th week on top in viewership and the adults 25-54 demographic. NBC stands in second place, and then there's a wide gap to third place, where CBS seems to visit another ratings low every couple of weeks.

Not that it seems to bother Couric much. She told New York magazine that she doesn't obsess over the ratings. She acknowledged having "Oh my God, what did I do?" moments but added, "For some weird reason, they don't happen that often."

That's probably the best course right now. The evening newscasts have seen more change in the past three years than they have in the past 20. CBS, having recently switched executive producers, is broadcasting a much harder newscast than it did in September. But it's folly to think that it will get much traction in the summer months, when ratings are lower.

Besides, it doesn't look as if ABC is going to give up the lead anytime soon, leaving NBC in the unfamiliar position of No. 2 for at least a little while longer.