By Marlene Sanders
Thursday, April 6, 2006
As Katie Couric heads into the nightly news anchor spot for CBS News, Marlene Sanders--the first woman to face the nightly evening news cameras--recalls the hesitant history that has led to this day.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The news that Katie Couric is getting a solo anchor spot on a nightly news network takes me back a few decades, to my own breach of the gender barrier in this same medium.
Timing, in life, can be everything.
This was ABC News in December of 1964. Anchor Ron Cochran had lost his voice. At the time, I was the anchor of the daily afternoon news program. When I was called in to substitute, I duly performed and Jack Gould wrote up the event in his New York Times column, calling it a first.
"The masculine evening news lineup received a temporary female replacement last night on the American Broadcasting Company when Marlene Sanders stepped in at 6:45 p.m. for an indisposed Ron Cochran . . . For the record then, the courageous young woman with a Vassar smile was crisp and businesslike and obviously the sort who wouldn't put up with any nonsense, from anyone. Her 15 minute show was not spell-binding, but that could have been because her delivery was terribly straightforward and her copy somewhat dull."
This bit of history is largely forgotten, since no trend was begun, and things reverted to normal.
In 1971, while the weekend anchor, Sam Donaldson, was in Vietnam, I was once again called upon to step in. This time it was to sub for both the Saturday and Sunday night network news for three months.
Still, the earth did not shake, and once again, the anchors reverted to their previous all-male status.
Meanwhile, spurred along by the women's movement, by 1972 women had entered local news by the droves. As the years passed, they rose in the local news ranks, became more visible, and then joined the networks.
People began to get used to seeing women covering the news and often anchoring local newscasts.
Then came a couple of short-lived experiments with female anchors helping out a male lead.
In 1976, Barbara Walters was lured to ABC to co-anchor the evening news with Harry Reasoner, but the press was largely unfriendly to her, Reasoner was uncomfortable and before too long, Walters went off to "20/20." Then, at CBS, there was Connie Chung's short-lived stint co-anchoring with Dan Rather, beginning in 1993.
Since those days, incremental changes have taken place. Today, no one comments as women anchor the evening news as substitutes or in the weekend slots.
After Peter Jennings' death, and Dan Rather's resignation from the evening news, the talk about replacement anchors gathered steam. Names like Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, stars of the morning news, surfaced.
The choice of Elizabeth Vargas, a frequent substitute for Jennings was not a great surprise, and she was paired with Bob Woodruff in a twosome that had them separated and in different parts of the globe.
Before the audience could get used to the change, Woodruff was wounded and has not yet returned. Meanwhile, Vargas announced her pregnancy, and once again, the situation at ABC was up in the air.
The smoothest transition in network news took place in 2005, when the long-planned departure of Tom Brokaw made way for Brian Williams, who had frequently substituted for him. He has held on to the top ratings Brokaw had achieved.
Recently, the gossip has swirled around CBS where Bob Schieffer has been substituting. Rumors gathered steam that Katie Couric, whose contract expires at NBC at the end of this May, would get the job.
Now Couric's appointment is a done deal it raises two questions: Is this a good idea for CBS? And is it a good thing for women?
My own view is that the anchor job belongs to a man or woman who has had extensive reporting experience, is not too young, and has appropriate gravitas.
Couric has the first two qualities, without question. Whether she has gravitas is in the eye of the beholder.
Will she help CBS improve its ratings? Yes, certainly at first.
In the earlier days of television news, ratings were not as crucial as they are today. Networks were then owned by individuals, not corporations. The Federal Communications Commission required that network affiliates and their owned and operated stations had to provide a certain amount of news and public affairs to get their valuable licenses renewed.
But during the Reagan years, the FCC reduced the rules on news and documentary programming. The networks, now owned by corporations rather than individuals, immediately cut back on documentary programming. The hunger turned to profits and the evening news needed to gain advertising dollars. For news purists, this was the beginning of the end; the beginning of info-tainment and a frantic competition for ratings. The anchors now had to appeal to the greatest number of viewers.
Today, the average network news viewer is over 50, and the question is whether those viewers will take to Couric in that role. We do not know the gender ratio of that audience, but my guess is that there are more men than women. Perhaps Couric will draw female daytime viewers to her new time slot.
But if CBS thinks Couric will attract younger viewers, I think they will be disappointed. Young people, including the college students I teach at New York University, do not watch the network newscasts. They get their news from the Web and other sources.
I seriously doubt her presence will lure them to the tube nightly.
We don't know if the news format would change to allow Couric to do the interviews she is comfortable with from her 15 years on the "Today" show. A new format might attract viewers.
But what about the women's movement and our endless efforts to get more women hired, both on air and behind the scenes?
If Couric gains ratings for CBS and gets good press, it's a plus. If she is dismissed as a lightweight, it will be another step backwards in the halting story of women in TV news.
Marlene Sanders is founding chair of the board of directors of Women's eNews and an Emmy-winning television correspondent for ABC and CBS News. She is co-author of "Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News," published in 1994.
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