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Archive for Monday, September 18, 2006

Couric just part of CBS’ new approach to news

September 18, 2006

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— Katie Couric isn't the only thing new at the "CBS Evening News."

Her first two weeks as anchor indicate that CBS is making some subtle but significant changes to a tradition-bound format, beyond the "Free Speech" commentary that has attracted the most attention since Couric's Sept. 5 debut.

At the bedrock is the assumption that many Americans no longer stay disconnected from the world through their workday and need a 22-minute summary on television to catch up.

Beyond the hiring of Couric, it's essential to shake things up at a broadcast that's been third in the ratings for years and part of an institution where all of the networks have been steadily losing viewers, said Sean McManus, CBS News president.

"If you are going to grow the audience, it's apparent that you're not going to grow the audience by doing the exact same things that have been done for years," he said.

The changes are most noticeable in the story count. While the third and fourth biggest stories of the day usually merit a correspondent's report on ABC and NBC, Couric will frequently breeze through a sentence or two and direct viewers to the CBS News Web site for further details.

Besides making room for "Free Speech," the time freed up is often devoted to an enterprise story, interview or backgrounder that's not necessarily tied to events of the day.

They have included a newsmaking interview with CIA leaker Richard Armitage, an interview with Wal-Mart's chief executive and the story of a man who foiled a New York City subway terrorist plot who now feels let down by the government.

Katie Couric, anchor for the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," and Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, answer questions about Couric's new role as the first female news anchor for a network evening news broadcast in this July 16 file photo. CBS has significantly changed the content of the evening news behind Couric.

Katie Couric, anchor for the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," and Sean McManus, president of CBS News and Sports, answer questions about Couric's new role as the first female news anchor for a network evening news broadcast in this July 16 file photo. CBS has significantly changed the content of the evening news behind Couric.

New directions

The new direction was most obviously signaled when Couric led her very first broadcast not with breaking news, but a Lara Logan enterprise story on suicide attacks in Afghanistan. The decision looked sadly prescient when, three days later, a suicide car bomber attacked a U.S. military convoy in Kabul, killing 16 people.

The flip side is ignoring or kissing off a story that CBS' rivals deemed important to understanding what went on in the world that day.

CBS did nothing Tuesday, for example, on the reaction to President Bush's prime-time speech on terrorism the night before. McManus said he felt no new ground was broken, and the speech was adequately analyzed during the network's special report Monday night.

CBS also gave only a brief mention to the Senate Intelligence Committee report concluding that Saddam Hussein was hostile to al-Qaida, despite the Bush administration trying to tie Iraq to the war on terror. Hartman said he didn't believe the report added much new, but conceded in hindsight that his judgment was open to question.

"If you're going to do something different, you have to occasionally be willing to not do something that the other two networks are doing," McManus said. "But if you've been No. 3 for 10 years, I'm not sure why you wouldn't do that. Putting on the exact same show the other two networks do every night would seem to be counter-intuitive."

Not so hard

The first four nights of Couric's broadcast included a total of 19 minutes of hard news, with the rest features, interviews and commentary, according to the Tyndall Report, which studies broadcast news content. By contrast, ABC's "World News" had 46 minutes of hard news, and NBC's "Nightly News" 44 minutes.

That's already led to whispers that CBS is now the "softer" newscast, somewhat ironic given that Couric predecessor Dan Rather for years used "hard news" as a mantra and a way to subtly tar his competitors.

McManus admits that bothers him, and said it's a false impression. "We cover a lot of hard news and will continue to do so," he said. "I think adding perspective and taking a slightly different approach is also something worth trying."

Viewers haven't rendered anything close to a final verdict. During her first eight days, Couric finished first in the ratings six times, second once and last once. CBS is encouraged by a 65 percent increase over last year in viewers aged 25-to-54, the demographic most attractive for news programs.

Couric generally directs viewers to the Web site CBSNews.com at least twice a broadcast, and that site saw a 57 percent increase in traffic for her first week compared to the week before, the network said.

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