Wednesday, April 05, 2006

You Heard It Here First

Katie Couric announced this morning that she will leave the Today show when her contract concludes next month. She's moving to CBS where, beginning in September, she will serve as anchor and managing editor of The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric. She will also contribute as a correspondent on 60 Minutes.

The CBS Evening News has consistently placed last among network news. And notwithstanding Elizabeth Vargas's current situation at ABC, where co-anchor Bob Woodruff has been sidelined for two months, Couric will be the first woman to anchor an evening news program by herself. Most critics and columnists are focused on these two facts. The resulting discussion has been fairly trite: whether "Katie" will become "Katherine," whether her bubbly persona will disappear, whether a woman anchor can boost CBS's ratings.

Let me offer counterpoint with one observation: CBS hasn't yet named an executive producer to Couric's newscast.

Evening news is on its way out. No one, absolutely no one in television believes otherwise. I saw Larry King talking with Dan Rather a few weeks ago, discussing this very subject. King asked Rather, "Do you watch the evening news?" Rather admitted, "Not very often." Rather asked King the same question, and King laughed. "Not very often," King agreed.

It's the most antiquated facet of television. The Internet and 24-hour cable news have rendered it absolutely obsolete. There's only one reason all three networks keep it alive, and that's perception: No one wants to be the first to dump it. Evening news still commands sentiment and prestige, and whoever blinks first will look cheap. Make no mistake: As soon as it becomes feasible, all three networks will kill evening news.

So consider what's happening. CBS is investing heavily in a brand. Katie Couric is a known entity, and her rapport with both guests and viewers is a valuable commodity. She's not going to become "Katherine," and CBS won't ask her to change. Evening news has long been the province of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings, and there's no question that Couric brings something different. That's deliberate. In signing Couric — and next, in choosing an executive producer — CBS is planning to set a new direction for evening news. They're not looking for a short-term ratings boost. They want out, and this is the beginning of the end.


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