Tuesday, September 5, 2006

See it then

With a white jacket, a brisk but agreeable pace, a command of the telelanguage and a whole lotta leg, the unretouched Katie Couric inaugurated the new format, style and focus of the CBS Evening News this evening – the same day (in American time zones at least) that Princess Kiko gave birth to a son to assume the Chrysanthemum Throne. A crisis of succession was averted in each of their respective empires.

It’s yet to be seen how the first male heir to Japanese empire in four decades will do; he as yet has issued no statements. But for Couric, the first official solo female anchor of an American network news broadcast, the stakes are high with her every statement, much like the speculation of what the Couric era ushers in.

The runup to this seems to have gone on forever, with the network dropping choice tidbits of information from time to time: the new theme was written by James Horner, the celebrated film composer (“Titanic”); a change in the customary interactive style between anchor and audience may be in the works.

Apparently the change at the top wasn’t enough for CBS News, whose photo retouching department – apparently not chastened by that little issue with the photographer upbraided for tweaking the smoke billowing from a war zone into something physically impossible – decided to digitally cut several pounds from the waistline of Couric, twice a mother.

Doing that may have won Couric some humanity points before she even went on the air; weight is everyone’s problem; the fact of her middle-aged spread – and the classy way she dealt with the issue (saying that despite the retouched photos, “there’s more of me to love”) could quietly endear her, in the short term at least, to millions of Americans fighting the same battles.

The touts at BetCRIS Sportsbook, a wagering company with twenty-one years experience, posted odds a few days earlier:

How many viewers CBS Evening News will have on Katie Couric’s first day:

BETWEEN 6.5 AND 7.0 MILLION 6 to 1
BETWEEN 7.0 AND 7.5 MILLION 3 to 1
BETWEEN 7.5 AND 8.0 MILLION 4 to 1
BETWEEN 8.0 AND 8.5 MILLION 4.75 to 1
MORE THAN 8.5 MILLION 3.75 to 1

But from the opening, it was clear that Couric has undertaken nothing less than the full transformation of her earlier persona, the period defined by the P-word better used as the name of Barbie’s poodle. “This is the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric,” said the voice-of-God doing the intro, the VOG being that of Walter Cronkite, fatally dealing a blade of pure gravitas to the throat of Perky.

But Uncle Walter notwithstanding, if the debut is any indication, Couric has a lighter, almost breezier touch than her predecessors. The stories whip by at a speed that seems even faster than usual in a twenty-two-minute broadcast. The first Couric broadcast is heavier on feature news than in the past, a legitimate nod to her experience and connections in the wider cultural arena of features and entertainment. The one coup of the evening was CBS' score of the cover of the new Vanity Fair magazine, with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, posing with the First Ever Photos of their daughter Suri, until that moment the most illustrious nonentity in modern times.

She went back to the feature well with "Free Speech," her stab at vox pop interactivity, "giving people a forum to express themselves, unfiltered and uninterrupted," in a segment that could yield both NPR-style "This I Believe" testimonials and expressions with the irascible tendencies of Andy Rooney. Morgan Spurlock, director of "Supersize Me," had the first crack, with an essay on the myth of America's red-state, blue-state dichotomies.

And Couric again dug deep into the features dept. well to come up with a retro segment called "Snapshots," a look back at some news event from the past (as recorded on the kinescopes and early videos of CBS News back in the day). “Snapshots” seems to borrow from the heyday of Life magazine’s “Miscellany” feature. Again, that word, feature. For the hardbitten journalists either part of or enamored of an era of harder evening news, feature is still an almost dirty word. They’re bound to weigh in tomorrow with a downbeat assessment of how Couric performed in her debut.

And to some extent they’ll have a point: When an anchor’s got about twenty-two minutes to get in the whole shot – to give people a meaningful, literate, visually appealing capsule of the day’s most pressing events – the choices that anchor makes, in an increasingly competitive telescape populated by increasingly impatient information surfers, say as much about the anchor as about the audience. And maybe more. With a debut newscast so locked into the world Couric supposedly vacated in May, there’s likely to be a concern that CBS’s reputation as the journalistic leader in the evening news – a reputation redolent of the gravity of Murrow and Sevareid and VOG Cronkite – will take a big hit under Couric.

But this is only day one, and Couric has already advised us to think of her newscast, at least in the early going, as a work in progress. She’s learning to make the right choices. It’s like shot selection for the ambitious but untried star of a basketball team; he sees himself draining it from the top of the key when he’s really better working the inside game. It takes time to find that out.

So tonight will definitely be the exception that proves the rule that is yet to be laid down. The Tiffany Network finally has someone at the helm of the news division who can actually wear Tiffany. Let’s see how she does.

And that means not just tonight. Hell, everybody tunes in the first night to get that first-blush, bragging-rights experience of seeing the carnival show when it first pulls into town. Let’s come back tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, see what unfolds.

Anybody can see it now. But Katie Couric’s pledged to be something different in the world of television network news.

Let’s see it then.
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