Katie Couric: Right Anchor at Wrong Time

Media Reviews for Media People

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With a crop of shows making their debuts on cable and the fall season right around the corner, Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg casts a critical eye on some of TV's new and continuing series to help marketers determine which may prove to be the best showcases for their ads and products. Today we check in on Katie Couric's reporting from Iraq.
Katie Couric interviews President Bush in Iraq on Sept. 3.
Katie Couric interviews President Bush in Iraq on Sept. 3. Credit: CBS

"CBS Evening News with Katie Couric"

Where you'll see it: CBS

When you'll see it: Monday through Friday, at 6:30 p.m. EDT

What you'll see: Katie Couric just might be the right anchor for the modern incarnation of the nightly network newscast. Too bad she's on at the wrong time.

As she broadcasts from Baghdad and Damascus this week, making what is arguably her biggest stab at "serious" news-anchordom, it's plain to see Ms. Couric has little to do with the venerable -- and increasingly out-of-sync -- traditions of the evening news program. While her makeup may be a tad off as she broadcasts from war-torn Iraq, interviewing generals, villagers and Army regulars, Katie remains the perky inquisitor. Her style seems more appropriate for soccer moms and boomers still trying to be hip, not the creaky oldsters who typically flock to the evening newscasts.

Where anchors who see themselves as heirs to Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley wear khaki shirts and camouflage, Ms. Couric dons black helmet and vest over her bright lime-green and coral shirts (Is she trying to give people a target?). Everyone from President Bush to a lowly army sergeant addresses her by her first name (Who calls Brian Williams "Bri," or Charles Gibson "Chuck"?), as if she's part of the family (she has been talking to people at the breakfast table for years, after all). Where Lara Logan, CBS's chief foreign correspondent, is breathlessly earnest, Ms. Couric appears calm but curious; she seems as interested to discover how things turn out as we are.

Which is why it's disappointing to see CBS now trying to shove her into the mold she was supposed to break. Granted, she and her producers may have tried too hard at first, hoping to woo us with the first picture of Tom Cruise's baby and an odd segment called "FreeSpeech," but now they've gone too far in the other direction. We don't need cooking segments or puffy celebrity interviews, but we do need a zippier take on the day's events that Ms. Couric is expert at providing.

The problem is the broadcast. Every time the show goes to commercial, we are bombarded with ads for drugs, pills and other solutions to the ravages of time. Media buyers apparently believe Ms. Couric's viewers are achy and wheezy. They also have restless legs, prostate trouble, breathing problems, too much cholesterol and are at risk for having a heart attack. They need Advair, Requip, Lipitor and Lunesta. Even an ad for Oreos shown during the "Evening News" features a grandfatherly figure trying to teach a child how to dunk the famous cookies.

People who don't like Ms. Couric will shudder and claim the evening-news format is sacrosanct, and that her tenure heralds the arrival of a dumbed-down version of it. Here's a flash: TV news was dumbed down a long time ago. Ms. Couric's ascension to the throne is one network's naked attempt to delight viewers as well as keep them informed.

To do so, however, CBS ought to run the broadcast at a time when younger viewers (we mean 49 and below) are home from work. Force the affiliates to move the newscast to 7:30. Bring in the ads from the likes of Apple, Verizon, Burger King and movie studios. Build a different kind of lead-in to prime-time. And admit what you have created -- a Daily VideoZine, not an Evening News -- rather than trying to mask it in trips to Iraq that are filled with activity but devoid of actual purpose.

What's at stake: Whether warranted or not, the nightly newscast remains the symbol of a broadcast network's credibility, a sign that one of its main reasons for being is to inform and educate the public that pays for its airwaves. Of course, these venerable programs bring in millions of dollars a year, particularly from the high-spending pharmaceutical category. Additionally, finding success with Ms. Couric would help CBS wipe away the tarnish it sustained when Dan Rather reported on documents critical of President Bush's military service that CBS News later said it could not authenticate.

Who's onboard: Watching a broadcast of the "CBS Evening News" is like opening Grandma's medicine cabinet. You'll find Merck's Boniva to help ward off osteoporosis, Schering-Plough's Miralax to help soothe the bowels and Allergan's Restasis to wet your dry eyes. A bonus for denture wearers: Ads for both GlaxoSmithKline's Poligrip and Procter & Gamble's Fixodent could be found over the course of a few evenings. Drug stores such as Walgreen's and CVS find the news to be fertile ground, as do some food makers, including Kraft Foods' Planters.

Your ad here? Product placement simply isn't possible in this venue. An anchor can't remain independent while holding up a can of soup or a toothbrush and talking about sponsors. But CBS and other networks have proved quite flexible when crafting deals for traditional ads surrounding evening newscasts, as anyone who recalls Philips Electronics' late-2006 gambit that reduced the ad load on NBC's nightly news program in exchange for Philips becoming the sole sponsor of the program.

CBS seems to have devised a unique structure for its newscast to benefit sponsors. Viewers for the broadcasts we surveyed got to see between 10 and 15 uninterrupted minutes of news before the show broke for ads. The longer a network can keep viewers on board -- particularly when the three big network newscasts are typically within a hair's breadth of each other in the ratings -- the harder it is for couch potatoes to find something they can get into elsewhere on the dial. After all, all those other programs have been running for the same amount of time as the CBS news.

Media buyer's verdict: Buyers have mixed views. "It's important for her to be put into situations where she is more of a hard-news anchor," said John Swift, exec VP-managing partner at Omnicom Group's PHD North America. "She is playing to the wrong audience," said Chuck Bacharch, exec VP-media resources and programming at independent RPA. "She's not restless-legs syndrome. She's not hemorrhoid medication. She's not those things. She needs to go where her audience is."
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