CBS, Couric Got Bogged Down in Old-New Battles

Why She Was the Right Anchor for the Wrong Timeslot

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When CBS announced Katie Couric would take over as anchor of its vaunted "CBS Evening News," it seemed like the old newscast might be made relevant again. Instead, the network hewed too close to what came before and didn't do enough to break with convention, proof positive that money can't buy success without a relevant strategy.

CBS heralded Ms. Couric's arrival as an opportunity to remake the venerable evening news, today watched by older audiences who don't hold great appeal for many mainstream advertisers other than makers of denture cream and cholesterol medications.

Katie Couric
Katie Couric Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/CBS

Ms. Couric was the right anchor for the wrong timeslot, a perky interviewer whose best stuff should have gotten a spotlight in a 7:30 p.m. newscast that pushed viewers toward prime time. Yes, CBS would have had to fight affiliates for such a program, but what better way to revive a dying broadcast-network staple than by recognizing that any new audience for evening news doesn't get home until later in the evening?

CBS wanted an omelet, yet was fearful of breaking too many eggs, instead leaving Ms. Couric to languish in a format that didn't suit her style -- or the hopes the network had for a newscast with her at the helm.

For her part, Ms. Couric and her handlers have been far too vocal about her dissatisfaction with her role. A near-constant spate of media stories centering on what Ms. Couric might do should she choose to leave CBS News became a distraction and undermined her authority as a newscaster, someone who is supposed to convey the news, not become it. Would Walter Cronkite have passed out his resume while covering the Kennedy assassination?

In the end, both brands have been tarnished. CBS News, which really hasn't seemed to catch a break since the Dan Rather conflagration, has been mired in third place among evening newscasts, a thorn in CBS CEO Leslie Moonves' side. Ms. Couric now faces a tough road if she does end up leading a daytime program, where audiences have been eroding for years and the economics have become significantly more difficult.

Would the two have been better off if Ms. Couric had remained at "Today"? Better for each to think about tomorrow instead.

And if CBS really wants to climb out of third place, perhaps it should allow its next general to fight the modern news war, rather than paddle around aimlessly in the past.

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