Katie Couric, CBS and the Future of Network News Katie Couric's early exit from CBS News appears almost imminent, but her departure signals more than a personal failure to win ratings; it's the unraveling of the idea of a "big three" in network news.
NPR logo

Katie Couric, CBS and the Future of Network News

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89654549/89661639" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Katie Couric, CBS and the Future of Network News

Katie Couric, CBS and the Future of Network News

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/89654549/89661639" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Change is afoot at CBS News. Last week, we heard reports that Katie Couric may be leaving her job as anchor of "The Evening News."

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, that has raised some questions about CBS' approach to the news business.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Katie Couric isn't quite halfway through her five-year, $75-million contract with CBS, and she sounded every bit the anchor last night as she led "The Evening News."

(Soundbite of show "CBS Evening News")

Ms. KATIE COURIC (Anchor, "CBS Evening News"): I'm Katie Couric in London. Also tonight, my exclusive interview with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, including his reaction to the global economic crisis.

FOLKENFLIK: She was hired to remake the network evening newscast for a new and younger audience. As Rome Hartman, Couric's first executive producer at the "CBS Evening News," recalls…

Mr. ROME HARTMAN (Former Executive Producer, "CBS Evening News"): The goal that Katie had coming in, and I know because she and I talked about it at great length, was not to make "The Evening News" somehow light and fluffy. The idea was to make it more accessible to more people but to do more in-depth work, frankly.

FOLKENFLIK: Under Couric, the show tried and dropped all kinds of experimental segments, and the ratings plummeted instead of soaring, attracting fewer than 6 million viewers a night. Newscasts at NBC and ABC each exceed 8 million.

Hartman is now the executive producer of the nightly TV newscast, "BBC World News America," but he was forced out at "The Evening News."

Mr. HARTMAN: That "Evening News" program has not performed on a commercial level - anywhere near what I had hoped and she had hoped and the company had hoped and Sean McManus had hoped. I mean, that's obvious.

FOLKENFLIK: And it's been painful. Couric met earlier this year with network officials to explore how her departure would be handled. She told one confidante a few weeks ago, quote, "they lied to me," saying CBS had promised to hire new top-flight, on-air correspondents and producers. This associate said Couric said, quote, "she wanted out of the job."

CBS brass say they are proud of Couric's work and committed to the newscast. All the same, at a conference back in March, CBS chief Les Moonves said…

Mr. LES MOONVES (Chief Executive Producer, CBS Corporation): People get home at 6:30, they already know the name of Eliot Spitzer's friend. So it's a whole different philosophy that when you raced home to see Walter Cronkite at 6:30 at night or even Tom Brokaw. The world is changing rapidly; we have to change with it.

FOLKENFLIK: Stephen Adler, the editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek magazine, asked Moonves...

Mr. STEPHEN ADLER (Editor in chief, BusinessWeek Magazine): If people already know what's going on, do they really need a half-hour evening news program on the network?

Mr. MOONVES: Very good question, very good question.

FOLKENFLIK: Sandy Socolow worked for CBS for decades and was executive producer for the "Evening News" when Walter Cronkite was the anchor. Socolow says the performance of the highly paid Couric shows young people just won't watch an evening newscast no matter how fresh she tries to be, and that's affecting the bottom line.

Mr. SANDY SOCOLOW (Former Executive Producer, "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite"): It's demoralizing in a tremendous, tremendous way. Along with her benefits, you've got a series of layoffs and cutbacks.

FOLKENFLIK: To save money, CBS officials are hoping to strike a partnership with CNN, though recent talks about collaboration in Baghdad broke down. Reporting from Iraq costs millions of dollars a year at a time when CBS' poor ratings are forcing the network to return money to some advertisers.

But Rome Hartman points out even in its damaged state, the "CBS Evening News" still pulls in far more viewers than cable newscasts.

Mr. HARTMAN: Nobody should be writing the obituary for CBS News because there's too much good still going on there, and there are too many good people determined to make it work. It's a tough time, but it's not over by any stretch.

FOLKENFLIK: Aside from "The Evening News" and flailing CBS "Early Show," news programs have done well. "60 Minutes" remains a towering and profitable force. "The CBS Evening News" may well endure for the short-term and even in the years to come with Couric or without her, but some of her colleagues say they don't know for how long.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.