Friday, July 27, 2007

Tube roses & thorns IV

Buyer’s remorse

Television is often the great distorter. It’s been said, for example, that people look ten pounds heavier on TV than they really are. The medium’s ability to convey unmerited gravitas extends to some of the hardball political punditocracy that makes up the landscape of cable; many of these “analysts” get credit for substance that they haven't earned.

But for all of television’s ability to throw shadows and fiction, it often reveals the truth. That’s nowhere more obvious lately than when watching the face and demeanor of Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News.

Simply put, folks, Katie ain’t happy now, and hasn’t been for some time. Her on-air demeanor has become almost painfully professional, direct and, in some cases, so automatic as to suggest she’s become the kind of rote newsreader she’s never been in recent years.

Remember, this was the Katie Couric who swept into the CBS Broadcast Center in September 2006 with the self-created mandate to do nothing less than Change the Face of Broadcast Television News. This was the Katie whose effervescent personality kept her aloft (and got us awake) for countless mornings on NBC’s “Today” show.

Couric started at CBS in the frothy wake of the Dan Rather scandal. When Rather stepped down under a cloud in March 2005, it was thought that whoever formally, officially succeeded Rather would have to be an improvement. Couric’s ascension to the top spot was just that, for a while.

In the beginning, Couric brought a lighter touch to CBS, running more than a few stories on celebrities and the wider culture in places where the body counts probably should have been. (Her on-air role had a parallel in the gossip magazines; the magazines you see at the end of the supermarket checkout counter published numerous stories about the unattached Couric stepping out with one wealthy beau or another – the network news anchor as frisky horndog.)

Purists accustomed to a straight-up, no-nonsense news format were not amused. After some new ideas on story choice and presentation failed to catch fire, the CBS program was revamped under veteran producer Rick Kaplan, late of CNN and MSNBC. But a number of reporting gaffes, and a proven claim of plaigiarism related to one of her Weblogs, have complicated the drive for legitimacy and acceptance by viewers, critics and news professionals.

CBS was, and remains, a distant third behind ABC's "World News" and "NBC Nightly News." The Sad Katie era has begun; you can see it in the latest network promos: Couric sits at her desk moving paper, head down, her blank expression hinting at a search for the exits.

Now, it’s getting ugly. A Couric interview in the July 9th issue of New York magazine has revived curiosity about her future at the Tiffany network.

Couric reportedly slapped a CBS News editor repeatedly in a tense newsroom confrontation, according to a source quoted in the New York article. Couric became angry over the word "sputum" into a story about tuberculosis last month. "I sort of slapped him around," Couric admitted to the magazine. "I got mad at him and said, 'You can't do this to me. You have to tell me when you're going to use a word like that.' I was aggravated, there's no question about that."

“Sputum” is the least of her concerns; right now Couric is chafing against Kaplan’s return to the buttoned-up style of Cronkite, Bob Schieffer (who temped in Katie’s role for months after Rathergate) and even, God help us, Dan Rather.

"People are very unforgiving and very resistant to change," Couric told New York. "The biggest mistake we made is we tried new things."

"If it turns out it wasn't a perfect fit (at the evening news), then, you know, I'll do something else that's really exciting and fulfilling for me," she told the magazine.

But not so fast. CBS News president Sean McManus may have other ideas.

"She has a five-year contract with CBS to anchor the evening news," McManus told The Associated Press on July 12. "All of us, including Katie, expect her to be anchoring the evening news in her fifth year."

Maybe Katie Couric’s getting the same slightly sinking feeling people sometimes have after making a major purchase, the voice in the back of the head that suggests they’ve made a serious mistake. But it’s too soon in the process for her or CBS to have buyer’s remorse. The checks she’s cashing are too big, and for CBS, still an also-ran in the ratings sweepstakes, the stakes are too high.

When the Couric era at CBS began, several “Evening News” promo spots made clever use of the phrase “See It Now,” borrowed from the program created by CBS icon Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s. What remains to be seen is whether Couric and her bosses at the third-place CBS “Evening News” can make peace – the better to make sure anyone sees it at all.

Cup o’ Joe

Faring better, at least for now, is Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country” and more recently the host of “Morning Joe,” an early-morning news and commentary program mounted in the wake of the Don Imus debacle.

Scarborough sits on the same set of the Secaucus, N.J. studio that Imus once occupied, and the loose, freewheeling format is much the same as under Imus. Scarborough has two apparently permanent guest associates: John Ridley, novelist, screenwriter and essayist; Willie Geist, co-host of MSNBC’s lamentable “Tucker” program; and Mika Brzezinski, MSNBC news reporter and daughter of former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

But the big change between Imus and Scarborough is really in some of the supporting cast: Ridley is African American, Brzezinski is a woman. Those facts right there are a big distinction from the days of Imus, whose virulent, white-guy-under-siege, red-meat testosterone aspect finally got him fired [see “Imus in the mourning”].

Here’s hoping Scarborough, whom The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz recently called a "recovering Republican politician," can keep carving out a niche in the mornings at MSNBC, whose ratings don’t exactly set the cable world on fire (the network trails CNN in prime-time viewers, as it has for years). The “Morning Joe” program may just be an experiment, but considering what it replaces, it’s one worth sticking with for now.
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Image credit: Couric: Nikki Webber Moore, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 license; Scarborough: U.S. Government (public domain)

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