Friday, April 11, 2008

That was the news model that was

It’s a rumor with the weight of a fact, whether it becomes one or not. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Katie Couric, the $15 million-a-year anchor, managing editor and iconic face of CBS News, may be leaving the network as soon as next year — years ahead of her contract’s current expiration in 2011. (The Journal story follows one that The Philadelphia Inquirer published in 2007, saying essentially the same thing.)

The network, of course, denies loudly, issuing not one but two statements downplaying rumors of Couric’s possible departure. The Journal quoted a “CBS Evening News” spokeswoman saying “We are very proud of the 'CBS Evening News,' particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast."

If the talk of her departure is true, there could be a lot of reasons. From almost the start of Couric’s tenure at the Tiffany Network in September 2006, reports surfaced of Couric clashing over content and style with Rick Kaplan, the legendary (and some have said legendarily difficult) veteran executive producer. Couric has been said to be coveting the longform possibilities of a gig with “60 Minutes.” And then there’s the other grating fact: Except for one brief period, the Journal reported, “Ms. Couric never bested the ratings of interim anchor [longtime CBS Washington correspondent] Bob Schieffer,” brought on in the wake of the Dan Rathergate scandal. When the temp outshines the franchise player on the bottom line, that’s trouble.

From the network’s viewpoint, the reason for Couric to go would have to do with money. For CBS, a network under pressure to cut rising costs, paying an anchor $15 million a year is hardly feasible in today’s economy.

But another real reason for Couric’s possible exit may have to do with a historic, or at least historical, sense of timing: The half-hour dinnertime news format she has inherited — the legacy of Douglas Edwards, Dan Rather and, yes, even Walter Cronkite — isn’t where most of America lives anymore.

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James Poniewozik, blogging Thursday at, understands. “Katie was brought in on the premise that she and her star power — plus a revamping of the newscast format—could bring in new viewers to the evening news … She cannot. God cannot. It is a losing proposition. … Couric's newscast has been an expensive final refutation of the desperate belief that it is possible to reverse the slow, inexorable decline of network news.

“Network newscasts are a holding effort. They are a rearguard action. They are prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe. Namely: fewer Americans have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour TV newscast at 6:30 in the evening …”

This is partly, even mostly true. What’s inarguably in decline is the broadcast version of network news.

Cable network news programs are very much in the ascendancy of both shaping and being shaped by people’s evolving expectations of television. Jon Lafayette of TV Week reported last August that ad-supported cable television had twice the viewers of broadcast television in prime time — a doubling of viewer share for the second straight year.

Ironically, it’s the historical failure of broadcast news execs to grasp the implication of that distinction that’s contributed to their model’s demise. If/when Katie Couric exits from CBS, she may well be the one to turn off the studio lights on a news format whose fifteen minutes of pertinence to American lives expired ten years ago.

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It’s true for two good reasons:

(1) The very idea of what news is is evolving at breathtaking speed. The shopworn definition of news according to the broadcast network model — a 23-minute recap of everything you’ve heard in the white noise of the modern world all day long, plus commercials — is dead as a rabbit-ears antenna.

That approach has been shattered by the velocities of modern life; the impact of popular culture; the crazyquilt of irregular work schedules, home-based businesses and graveyard shifts; the advance of the Internet; and a democratization of information so prevalent, so much the air we breathe that we take it for granted. Your news isn’t my news isn’t her news, and there’s no turning back from that.

(2) That cultural time shift, that democratization of news and its increasingly viral and populist component, makes a longer time frame necessary. People want their news when they want it, and they want it the way they live their lives: around the clock. That demand for 24/7 information immediacy is something broadcast networks (beholden to affiliates wedded to local programming and syndicated shows) can’t possibly provide.

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Was it a coincidence? Weeks before the rumors of Couric leaving CBS arose, there were reports of CBS and CNN refloating an idea to create a newsgathering joint venture of sorts. The idea first emerged around 1998, and was thoroughly detailed in a cover story for the dear, departed Brill’s Content magazine. The most recent plan called for CBS news stories filed from its Baghdad bureau to be included on CNN cable feeds.

The rationale? The move would have saved CBS about $7 million a year, according to the network, and would have at least peripherally extended the CBS news brand and personalities into the lucrative realm of cable.

The negotiations fell through, but that kind of tie-up may be the only reed for broadcast news left to grasp in the future.

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NBC, of course, is well-positioned, with partners throughout the cablescape (MSNBC, CNBC and Bravo, to name a few) that make the NBC broadcast model an example to follow. CBS and partner in misery ABC don’t have such inroads into cable; theirs are the network news models that Poniewozik (and anyone with anything worthwhile to do at 6:30 in the evening) knows are in the sunset of their days. If Couric leaves, CBS may be first to hit that wall.

Or not. It doesn’t have to be like that. We’ve said before: Broadcast TV news’ survival depends on thinking outside the room the box is in. For all of NBC’s vast broadcast and cable presence, for instance, the Peacock Network has made scant use of its Telemundo unit, acquired in 2002, or of mun2, launched in 2001 as the first national cable enterprise to offer bilingual programming in Spanish and English.

Those acquisitions, the growing number of Latino households, and the rising impact of Latino culture in the United States present a screaming opportunity to rewrite the rules of broadcast news: Why not consider the culturally daring but financially lucrative move of a bilingual one-hour prime-time news broadcast?

Couric apparently knows or senses something in the wind; there’s talk that she may be positioning herself to replace Larry King, the long-of-tooth talk-show host whose CNN contract expires in 2009.

That need for change is something CBS brass hasn’t internalized — yet. For the half-hour evening news, this isn’t handwriting on the wall, it’s a block-long billboard that the network suits can't ignore. A fickle, restless viewership and the dictates of economies of scale mean the only hope for yesterday’s broadcast news model is to find out what time it is. And fast.

Image credits: Couric: Daily Celeb. CBS logo graphic: © 2008 CBS Inc. Telemundo logo: ©2008 NBC Universal.

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