Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Will we respect her in the evening?

One of the longest courtships in television history was consummated today. Like the charming, ambitious Charles Foster Kane -- who looked through the window of a rival newspaper at a photograph of its staff before acquiring their services -- CBS top dog Les Moonves got his candy, all of it, in the form of one Katharine Couric, soon to become the first sole female television news anchor in the history of the medium according to America.

It's all over but the reactions from the public and the press. The results of a spanking-new poll conducted this week by The Associated Press and TV Guide may hold the key to Couric's fortunes in the nation's evening hours.

According to the AP/TV Guide poll, when asked if they'd rather see Couric in her longtime (15 years and counting) role as host of the “Today” show or as the first woman to anchor a U.S. network weekday evening newscast solo, 49 percent favored Couric in the morning and 29 percent wanted Couric in the evening.

In her new role as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News” (she starts in September), Couric becomes the beneficiary of a slowly-increasing audience for the Tiffany Network News. While her loyal audience at “Today” is now about 6 million viewers, and likely to stay there until she bows at "Today" in May, Couric inherits a “CBS Evening News” audience of about 7.5 million viewers.

It's an equally safe bet that many of them will stay for the early rounds to see how Couric looks behind an anchor desk, instead of her previous backdrops and costumes (narrating the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, or dressing like SpongeBob SquarePants on Halloween, for example).

Which leads us to how the press, her colleagues in the business, are reacting to her ascension. Interviewed by the AP, news consultant Andrew Tyndal says that the incessant claims that Couric lacks the “gravitas” for the job are “thinly disguised sexism.” Tyndal went on to suggest that the same arguments brought against Couric for being insubstantial were strangely absent when one considers that former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw took roughly the same path to the high chair at the Peacock Network, coming up through the ranks as a fixture on "Today" alongside Jane Pauley.

Another journalist, however, says there is a difference in style and temperament between morning and evening programs, and the audiences of each group varies. “This relationship (with viewers) will be different — it’s a more serious, more weighty and more important position,” said Charlotte Grimes, journalism professor at Syracuse University. “It’s going to take a different set of skills,” she told the AP.

It's fair to say that Couric has ably demonstrated the other side of her skill set, the gravitas part, on that day when journalists all over America grew up: Sept. 11, 2001. In short order, Couric necessarily made the shift from perky morning-show host to witness to a national tragedy, working for much of the early going alongside Brokaw as a solid hard-news journalist in the best traditions of the craft: emphatic yet empathic, relatively objective but not blind to the emerging human dimensions of the worst foreign incursion on American soil in centuries.

For his part, Bob Schieffer, who's been pinch-hitting as anchor since Dan Rather's departure, is solidly in Couric's corner.

"She's a great interviewer, people know who she is, and she has enormous credibility. People believe her. They take her seriously," Schieffer told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Gail Shister. You want journalistic gravitas? The G word may well be Schieffer's middle name. With a vote of confidence from that wily veteran of the Washington press corps, the game is Couric's to lose.

So we'll see. We've got about five months to prepare for this Paradigm Shift in broadcast TV news, and a lot can happen between now and fall. ABC's Bob Woodruff should be back on the job after his injuries in Iraq in January. For the perennial No. 3 network in the news ratings race, the appointment of Katie Couric may be just the tonic the doctor ordered. Maybe not so much a tonic as, uh, a high colonic.

Stay tuned.

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