(WOMENSENEWS)--After a week on the "CBS Evening News," Katie Couric, the first woman to take over as solo anchor on a network evening newscast, needs to grow a thick skin on her way back to the drawing board.
The ascension of the former "Today" co-host to the seat formerly occupied by hard-newsers Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather met with tepid approval at best and contempt at worst. Reaction to her CBS debut Sept. 5 continued the skeptical tone about Couric's appropriateness for the job that began in April when her hiring was announced.
To turn that around, Couric and her partners will have to work extremely hard to make this historic assignment for a woman into a compelling news program that will be a "must-watch" rather than "news lite."
Tom Shales of the Washington Post said Couric "did a brisk, engaging job of getting the strange new show off the ground" but "the premiere was too jammed with 'new features.'" Shales also said her outfit made her look fat.
Joanne Ostrow of the Denver Post complained that the newscast "was a familiar stew of actual news and celebrity piffle." The Miami Herald's Glenn Garvin said it was "an uneasy imitation of the soft-core morning news genre." And, noting that Couric had asked her viewers to suggest a signoff for her, the Hollywood Reporter's Barry Garron said, "How about 'Good night from what used to be CBS News?'"
A particularly nasty zinger came from Andrea Peyser at the New York Post: "She looked like a little girl who had to go potty."
One of the few positives was "competent and safe" from Joanna Weiss at the Boston Globe.
While critics vote with their pens, viewers vote with their remotes. Couric's first night ratings were terrific. The curious and the loyal boosted the newscast's audience to 13.6 million viewers that night, 84 percent higher than the same night a year ago, the network said. By comparison, the ABC and NBC counterparts attracted 7.6 million and 7.8 million, respectively.
One of her biggest challenges will be delivering on her bosses' expectation that she'll tilt the demographics of the "CBS Evening News" audience to a younger group. The newscast has long been subsidized by commercials for hemorrhoid creams, denture adhesives and laxatives geared to the over-60 crowd. But advertisers are willing to pay much more to reach younger viewers. If her early overall audience numbers fall off, and younger viewers don't show up in larger percentages, the program--and Couric--will be in trouble.
Couric and evening newscasts--not just CBS's, but NBC's and ABC's--may not be able to count on audience growth in the years ahead, particularly among the youthful viewers they crave.
The day after Couric's first appearance as the "CBS Evening News" anchor, I met with 20 students in a women and journalism seminar at the University of Maryland, College Park. Not one had watched Couric the night before; but neither did they watch ABC's Charles Gibson or NBC's Brian Williams.
CBS simulcast the program online, but the students didn't watch it on their computers, either. They just don't watch the evening news, they told me. Even the broadcast journalism majors in the room didn't tune in during Couric's first night.
Couric isn't a terribly familiar or important figure to them, since they were otherwise occupied--asleep or in school, presumably--during the years she co-hosted "Today." And in only the first week of their university course, they were just beginning to learn about the barriers women had to overcome to succeed in journalism.
Logical New Format
As much as some critics dislike the format changes of the "CBS Evening News," there's a logic to discarding the model for which an anchor reviewed the day's headlines.
By 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, people interested in the news already know what the major events of the day are. They're ready to have selected items fleshed out, with lesser ones simply highlighted.
This seems to be where CBS News is trying to go with its new evening newscast format, which features a longer-form top story; the first night this was a close-up of Taliban fighters reported by Lara Logan, the second night featured Couric interviewing President Bush about trials for suspected terrorists.
Unfortunately, though the reports were given generous air time, they seemed disjointed and lacked depth, and the Bush interview was a disappointment to this viewer, though probably not to the president.
The human-interest stories should stay. Many viewers prefer to have the day's toughest stories leavened with profiles of interesting, ordinary people doing unusual things.
However, I'm with those who want to dispense with nauseating "celebrity piffle."
'Free Speech' Needs New Cast
Along those lines, Couric and Company should revisit the casting of their "Free Speech" segment, which lets an individual sound off on a topic close to his or her heart (or public-relations machine). The first participant was Morgan Spurlock, director of the documentary "Super Size Me," and the third, Rush Limbaugh. Both already get plenty of exposure, so they're curious choices for something that should be introducing fresh faces and new voices.
In between was Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times, making a plea for help for immigrant single mothers who leave their children with grandparents and try to earn enough money in the United States to support them. The upshot is that they rarely get to see their children and the relationships dissolve; it is an urgent humanitarian crisis, she said.
Nazario's contribution was a worthy use of the "Free Speech" segment.
"Free Speech" also provides a golden opportunity to feature more female voices, which have been sorely lacking in every analysis of evening newscasts since their inception.
The runup to Couric's debut as "CBS Evening News" anchor included numerous stories about what she needed to change about her hair, clothing and makeup as she went from morning television to evening as if she was going from the office to a cocktail party.
Regrettably, many female journalists and female sources eagerly participated in this drivel.
But for the most part, journalists covering Couric's foray into the evening news last week gave her her lumps, not for her looks, but for the uneven content of the program of which she is now managing editor. She's got a lot of work to do. Sorry to say so, but as her predecessor Walter Cronkite famously signed off, "That's the way it is."
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.
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For more information:
"Couric Follows Broken Trail of Female Anchors":
Tom Shales, Washington Post--
"No News Not the Best News for Katie Couric's Debut":
Olivia Barker, USA Today
"Couric's Style Goes From 'Today' to 'Evening'":
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