Is CBS Trying to Rebrand Couric?

Latest Ads More Cronkite Than Katie as Newscast Continues to Trail Rivals

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With Katie Couric's perky personality and "Today" background at the ready, her arrival at CBS to anchor the evening newscast was billed as a chance to reinvent the program in a way that would attract more women and younger viewers. That hasn't exactly worked out. Now CBS is promoting the show as if Walter Cronkite still sat behind the desk.
No perkiness here: An ad in USA Today focuses on Couric's experience.
No perkiness here: An ad in USA Today focuses on Couric's experience. Credit: John Paul Filo

"Experience You Can Trust," under a picture of Ms. Couric, was the slogan in an ad for the CBS Evening News that ran in USA Today last week. The ad also used quotes from various newspaper and online reviews to talk about the "impressive" and "poignant" reporting on the newscast. CBS said the ad is part of the network's regular promotion of the program.

For many, however, the ad crystallizes CBS's decision to back off from its daring attempt to create an evening newscast that would draw a more youthful audience. "I wish younger people would watch the news. It does not look like that is going to happen," said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. CEO, at an investor conference last week. Even so, he expressed satisfaction in the program's new form: "We still like the product that we do, that we have," he said, adding that Ms. Couric is "still a terrific newsperson."

Diminished hopes
Ms. Couric's arrival at CBS News, sealed with a reported $15 million annual contract, was accompanied by much fanfare. At the time, Mr. Moonves suggested that the so-called "voice of God" news format, in which anchors deliver succinct news capsules in serious tones, had run its course. As such, Ms. Couric's debut week came with a look at Tom Cruise's newborn baby and a "Free Speech" segment that let people have a say on-air. But it wasn't enough to vault Ms. Couric over two rivals widely viewed as having more experience and gravitas. After an initial spike, the newscast's ratings have generally trailed "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams" and "ABC World News With Charles Gibson."

Through Dec. 2, "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" reached around 6.4 million viewers who watched it either live or the day it aired, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, "ABC World News With Charles Gibson" drew 8.3 million viewers and "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" was watched by approximately 8.2 million.

In March, CBS replaced Ms. Couric's executive producer, Rome Hartman, with news veteran Rick Kaplan, known for his harder news sense. "The changes that Kaplan brought about are concentrating much more on the story rather than the personality," said Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report monitors the content of the network newscasts. "The features they use are more likely to be exposés and investigations than lifestyle. Look at all of those things and you've got a traditional newscast."

Negative awareness
The way in which consumers perceive Ms. Couric has changed subtly as well. "Her negatives are higher than they were when she was at the 'Today' show," said Henry Schafer, exec VP at Marketing Evaluations, the Manhasset, N.Y., company behind the popular "Q scores" that measure consumer appeal. Simply put, he said, an evening newscast can polarize audiences more than a morning show. Ms. Couric commands "much more awareness than either Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson. Their appeal is a little bit stronger, but she's far more well-known," he said.

The USA Today ad does beg the question of why CBS feels the need to play up her news chops. Ms. Couric is still relatively new to the rigors of being a national anchor, said Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News. The ad plays up the experience behind the newscast when Mr. Grossman said he believes she could still use some time at the desk. "Katie was a personality and still is a personality," he said.
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