COMMENTS: The Anachronistic Anchor

Rebecca Dana at The Wall Street Journal broke the news overnight that CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric is "likely" to leave the network before her contract expires in 2011, possibly as soon as January of 2009.

Couric has certainly failed to live up to the hype that accompanied her ascension to the anchor chair in the fall of 2006. The settled formulas of the network nightly newscast proved harder to reinvent than she and her first executive producer Rome Hartman expected. CBS' decade-long third place in the ratings proved especially stubborn to shake off. The hoopla surrounding her arrival--a new set, a new logo, her shattering of that glass ceiling, her face plastered on the side of buses next to Dr Phil--provided an evanescent boost to CBS' ratings, prompted more by curiosity than superior journalism.

But these problems hardly constitute Couric's failures so much as the burden of unrealistically high expectations. There was once a time, when broadcast television networks had monopoly power, that ratings problems could be solved by throwing multimillion dollar contracts at celebrity journalists. Roone Arledge, the mentor of CBS News President Sean McManus, was the master of this technique, assembling a roster of Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters and David Brinkley and Ted Koppel back in the 1980s. But this is the 21st century. Mass media sized audiences are never returning to broadcast television, so celebrity solutions for solving shrinking ratings no longer apply.

Couric can hardly be blamed for pocketing the enormous check, $15m or so each year, that CBS News thrust upon her. CBS News certainly made an error in making her the offer. And she certainly cannot be faulted for not working as hard as her rivals. At Tyndall Report we logged almost as many reports filed by Couric at CBS in the past 18 months as by Charles Gibson at ABC (97 v 116) and many more than Brian Williams' 57 at NBC.

The 21st century task facing an organization like CBS News is to leverage its still substantial broadcast television presence, exploiting its promotional clout and accompanying resources, in order to increase its audience on all other platforms. All the growth CBS News can look forward to will be away from television, as we watch our video news on our cell phones, our PlayStations, our computer screens, on YouTube, via shared as e-mails and embedded players and so on.

It is a delicious irony that the oldest and most staid news formula on television--the half hour evening newscast--happens to be composed of video packages, each two minutes or so in duration, that are the ready made unit for modern day YouTube video viewing. There are only two differences between those video packages strung together in a newscast and available individually online: first, on television they are interrupted by youth-repelling commercials for pharmaceuticals and other wrinkle-targeted products; second, that guiding hand of an anchor introduces each piece. Online viewers are liberated from Big Pharma and Big Anchor.

Reported hard news from global hotspots and the corridors of power has always been the bread and butter content of the nightly news. The newscasts have always been a correspondents' and producers' medium, the journalists on the scene covering the day's events, with the anchor playing a secondary, facilitating role. As that news shifts from broadcast television to multiplatform video, the on-the-scene content becomes yet more prominent and the anchor's role recedes yet further.

CBS News never needed an anchor to increase its audience; instead it needed an aggressive online strategy. And if hard news is key to that strategy, the last type of anchor it needed was an expensive celebrity whose major skills were those of a morning show interviewer and whose favorite news beat was human interest.


Larry McGill, an old friend of Tyndall Report and experienced media researcher, makes the following comment by e-mail:

Great analysis, Andrew. Fair and insightful.

I wonder, though, if the drawing power of an anchor is perhaps the only thing that broadcast news has left to distinguish itself from other media options. The only reason I can think of to tune into an evening newscast is because I want to get the news "delivered" by someone I enjoy watching. Otherwise, what's the difference between watching a 2 1/2-minute produced piece online or on tv?

I think part of the problem with Katie may have been gravitas (or lack thereof), and I don't say this because she is female. It's not so much that network newscast viewers prefer male to female anchors, I think, but rather that they want someone with a credible "take charge" persona. And the reason for that is because the network newscasts are all about hard news, as you point out. A persona verging on the "macho" seems to mesh best in that kind of a content environment. The successful hard news programs on cable networks still seem to me to be personality-driven, for example (and actually push the macho thing a little too far in most cases!).

I do agree that CBS needs to pay as much, if not more, attention to its online efforts in order to flourish in the future. In the meantime, though, it seems to me that the key to success in network news may still be the anchor.

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