Sunday, December 17, 2006

The fangs of Katie Couric

If Perky wasn’t dead before, Perky’s sure as hell dead as fried chicken now. That’s the takeaway message both from Katie Couric’s smart reordering of story emphasis on the “CBS Evening News,” and from a published, teeth-bared reaction to her media critics. At this point some three-odd months into her ascension to the anchor chair, Couric’s finding her range as a television journalist, but she’s a bit more thin-skinned than the girl who woke us up so many mornings could ever be.

From the beginning, there were concerns (some of them aired here) about a features-heavy story play when she started. That’s pretty much given way to a story play more or less consistent with the weight of similar stories on the other nightly newscasts. Her lieutenants in the field – David Martin at the Pentagon, John Blackstone covering the American West, Mark Phillips in London, Lara Logan in Iraq – are solid professionals; the interplay between them and Couric seems more heartfelt than with Bob Schieffer, Couric’s predecessor who, for all his skill as a Washington gumshoe insider, didn’t handle pleasantries from correspondents or small talk all that well.

Set goes to Couric. But then it comes undone. She leads the Dec. 13 broadcast with a story on holiday shopping when other newscasts led, rightly, with the potential bombshell of the mystery illness of South Dakota Democratic Senator Tim Johnson, an illness whose worst-case presentation could throw the leadership of the United States Senate, and the pending shift of the balance of power to the Democrats, into complete disarray.

The viewing public is a creature of habit, just like anyone in it. To judge from the ratings, viewers are more comfortable with NBC’s Brian Williams or ABC’s Charles Gibson talking to them over dinner. Nielsen Media Research reported that, for the week of Dec. 4, NBC’s evening news broadcast culled 9.1 million viewers in the multichannel universe. ABC’s newscast pulled down 9 million viewers, and the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” garnered 7.5 million viewers – a fact that keeps CBS about where it’s been for some time, firmly in command of third place.

Maybe viewers still have a lingering memory of the Rather debacle, or how CBS tried a variety of anchor experiments before settling on Schieffer before settling down with Katie.

But two statements stand out as signs of Couric clearly bustin’ a death cap in Perky’s ass, and her probably growing frustration with her program’s inability to gain ground on the competition.

La Couric was quoted in James Wolcott’s column in the new issue of Vanity Fair, saying "[w]e kind of ignore people who are observing everything we do and praising, criticizing or analyzing it." That rather imperial diss arrived about the same time that Radar Online circulated excerpts of an interview Couric had with Tom Junod of Esquire magazine. You can almost see Katie’s canines emerging as she speaks, barely disguising exasperation. “You guys even take a shot at me. You have something in the November issue, something about how since I’ve become an anchor, you don’t know me anymore. You don’t know me anymore? Bite me.”

Katie Couric thus joins … [drumroll please] ...

Murrow: “Good night and good luck.”

Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is.”

Couric: “Bite me.”

Like any worthy professional in a position where results are evaluated on a week-to-week basis, Couric’s eager to make her mark sooner rather than later. But her sniping at Esquire magazine does more than reveal a petulant streak; it suggests that she doesn’t understand the nature of television. A medium that provides more or less immediate information can be expected to generate more or less immediate reactions to that information, and how it’s presented to people.

We’d be inclined to write it off to sophomore jitters if it were anyone other than Couric, an old hand in the medium, especially its’ morning talk-show wars. But with statements like that, she’s biting the medium that feeds her, and the public that feeds that medium. There’s a sense that she thinks the “CBS Evening News” is supposed to be immune from adverse reaction. If she really feels like that … maybe we don’t know her anymore.

Couric’s testiness is coming, ironically enough, when she’s finding the sweet spot as a TV journalist. Maybe now she’ll dial back her expectations of herself, just a little. When you’ve set those expectations so high, having essentially said you intend to reshape the known model of evening broadcast news, you’re off your meds if you don’t think viewers will react, and fast, favorably or otherwise.

The opening-day hoopla is over, Katie; now it’s time to settle down on the mound and pitch. Don’t forget, the audience is always the umpire. Always. And you’ve been in television long enough to know that.

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