Saturday, August 19, 2006

The New York Times

August 20, 2006

CBS Makes It All About Katie, but Rivals Aren’t Idly Watching

To reintroduce Katie Couric to the country as a serious yet still accessible evening news anchor on Sept. 5, CBS has embarked on an image campaign worthy of a presidential candidate.

The network’s efforts will put her face on the front of every city bus in New York next month as part of a promotion that would cost in excess of $10 million if the national television commercials featuring her were bought by an outsider.

For all the maligning of the evening news as a dinosaur lurching toward extinction, the prize CBS is pursuing remains among the most lucrative and high-profile in television: the biggest share of the nearly 25 million viewers who still tune in to the three main news broadcasts each night, and the bulk of the nearly $400 million spent each year by advertisers trying to reach them.

Unlike her two main rivals, Brian Williams of NBC and Charles Gibson of ABC, Ms. Couric does not enjoy the incumbent’s advantage of already doing the news each weeknight — though they, too, have hardly sat idle.

Little wonder that CBS, which is paying Ms. Couric an estimated $15 million annually, has been convening focus groups at its research center in Las Vegas and other places to ask viewers such questions as how she will fare in a matchup against Mr. Williams, the leader in the Nielsen ratings, and Mr. Gibson, whose program is in second place.

The network would not say whether the “CBS Evening News,” mired at No. 3 in the ratings for more than a decade, was able to raise its standing in that most recent internal polling. Regardless, it has used those responses from viewers, including the attributes they seek in an anchor, to help shape Ms. Couric’s broadcast.

Meanwhile, like local party leaders, news anchors from the top 48 CBS affiliates were flown to New York this month for a two-day junket in which each was given 10 minutes to interview Ms. Couric — all told, she talked for more than eight hours — for individual segments that will be broadcast prominently on each local station.

Though far more subdued, Mr. Williams and Mr. Gibson have nonetheless been making similar efforts, some of them mischievous in tone, to retain the viewers they have and woo others.

Beginning around Sept. 1, an image of Mr. Williams, four stories tall, will loom over the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan from a banner at West 57th Street and 10th Avenue. (Alongside will be another featuring Matt Lauer and Ms. Couric’s replacement as his partner on the “Today” show, Meredith Vieira.)

Still, the defection of Ms. Couric from “Today,” the top-rated morning program for more than a decade, is being taken so seriously at NBC that her former boss on the program, Jeff Zucker, now chief executive of NBC Universal Television, has been gathering executives for regular meetings intended to guard against complacency, in both the evening and morning time slots.

At ABC, Mr. Gibson — who was moved from “Good Morning America” to “World News” in late May, after the network abandoned a two-anchor format — is being reintroduced himself, in an advertising campaign with its own vaguely presidential tag line: “Your Trusted Source.”

The line is intended not only as a dig at Mr. Williams (who assumed the anchor chair at NBC less than two years ago) and Ms. Couric, but also as a way to link Mr. Gibson to Peter Jennings, who led the ABC newscast for more than two decades before his death in August 2005. (The slogan of the last campaign featuring Mr. Jennings, as he had prepared to go up against Mr. Williams in his rookie year, was “Trust Is Earned.”)

Having worked within the same news division as Mr. Williams and competed for years against Mr. Gibson in the morning, Ms. Couric, by virtue of her decision to occupy the 6:30 p.m. slot at CBS, has heightened the already spirited competition among the three news divisions.

On a recent afternoon at NBC, one former colleague wondered, with obvious relish, whether Ms. Couric would seek to install a “Today”-style couch on the CBS set — for the record, she will not — and another suggested that Ms. Couric had hired her personal gastroenterologist as her program’s new medical correspondent. (She did not; while a sometime guest on “Today,” the new CBS reporter, Dr. Jonathan LaPook, is not her doctor, she said, though he did refer her to the doctor who gave her a colonoscopy.)

When asked about one another in separate interviews, the three anchors mostly sought to highlight their rivals’ strengths, though a certain bristling was evident.

“Katie comes into the job with a good understanding of the anchor-viewer relationship,” Mr. Williams said, when asked in early August about Ms. Couric in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, not far from the “Today” set. “But evening news viewers are different.”

When Mr. Gibson was asked — in an interview just before he presented a live report on the British terrorism arrests on Aug. 10 — whether he had any special plans for the broadcast of Sept. 5, he questioned why a reporter was asking about that date.

“I didn’t even know it was Sept. 5 she was starting,” he said, with apparent seriousness. “Her beginning the show is not an event in this newsroom.”

Then, noting that his arrival on “World News” full time on May 29 had preceded Ms. Couric’s at CBS by more than three months, he added, “This is not like a shakedown cruise.”

And how does Ms. Couric size up her competition?

In a telephone interview last week, she said, “Clearly we don’t want to be rubber-stamping everything they do.”

Among the elements she hopes will set her program apart, she said, is the weeding out of the austere delivery she often detects among correspondents on CBS’s evening news program — and those of her rivals — in favor of a more relaxed approach.

“It hasn’t gotten to Ron Burgundy levels,” she said, invoking the robotic, self-absorbed newscaster played by Will Ferrell in the 2004 movie “Anchorman.” “But the ability to just talk to people and communicate in simple language that we use in conversation is something that can be done to a greater extent.”

Ms. Couric’s debut will offer evening news viewers the starkest choice among anchors, at least demographically, in the four-decade history of the half-hour evening news format: a 63-year-old man (Mr. Gibson), a 47-year-old man and the first woman to fly solo behind an anchor desk.

And for all three networks, the arrival of Ms. Couric, 49 — the most established star to take the helm of an evening newscast — represents perhaps the last chance for such programs to make a broad case for their relevance, in an age when news video is instantly available on the Internet. On Thursday, CBS announced that Ms. Couric’s program would be shown simultaneously on the Web, a first for the evening news.

The promotions supporting Ms. Couric are the most exhaustive undertaken by CBS News, the network’s executives said, and comparable only to the promotions mounted in recent years for prime-time shows like “CSI.”

Whether the hype will have any long-term effect remains to be seen. Typically, the pecking order among network newscasts has changed glacially, a function not just of who has delivered the news but also of the popularity of the local newscasts that precede them.

In many respects, Ms. Couric’s retooling of the “CBS Evening News” will appear comfortably familiar.

She will sit at a desk finished in ginger root maple laminate — lighter than the mahogany model used by Dan Rather and later Bob Schieffer, but still a desk — atop bright red and blue carpeting, with a 15-foot projection television to her left. Nearby are areas for her to stand and to accommodate chairs for live interviews.

One way she thinks she might stand out from her competitors, she said, is that she will assume that many viewers have already scanned the headlines of the day, giving her license to jettison some stories entirely or to dispense with others in a digest. Doing so, she said, could free up valuable time — no small thing in a broadcast that is actually 22 minutes — to add depth and context to those issues she deems worthy.

“We’ll have correspondents working less on ‘news of the day’ stories and focusing on longer takeouts, if you will,” she said.

At least at the outset, Ms. Couric will give over as many as 90 seconds each night to a segment titled “Free Speech,” in which ordinary Americans, as well as scholars and sometimes even comedians, will be allowed to sound off. Mr. Schieffer will deliver a weekly essay in this slot, probably on Wednesdays.

Neither Mr. Williams nor Mr. Gibson said he felt inclined to follow suit, saying there was ample commentary on cable news and talk radio.

On average this year, Mr. Williams’s broadcast has beaten ABC’s by nearly 800,000 viewers each night, drawing a total audience of 8.8 million versus 8 million for ABC, with CBS lagging at 7.3 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. Though the race between NBC and ABC has been far closer among viewers ages 25 to 54, a bellwether for advertisers — NBC’s lead there is a slim 100,000 — Mr. Williams said he did not plan to change anything come Sept. 5.

“It wouldn’t make sense elsewhere in business for the leading product to make alterations because a product was joining the fray,” he said.

Among the ways Mr. Williams’s broadcast has evolved in the 20 months since he succeeded Tom Brokaw is that it has sought to leaven his marked sobriety with an occasional nod to his sense of humor. At times, he even answers viewer e-mail on the air.

At other times, though, efforts to make the broadcast (and its associated Web site) even more about Mr. Williams can appear to border on the self-reverential. On July 17, for example, the 10th anniversary of the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island Sound, Mr. Williams chose to mark the occasion by showing extended footage of how he had reported the crash live as an anchor on MSNBC, then in its third night of existence.

“It sounds like it’s being said absent modesty,” Mr. Williams said, when asked to explain that editorial choice. “That became a bit of a television touchstone that many, many summer viewers associated with that night.”

Like Mr. Williams, Mr. Gibson said he did not expect to make major revisions in his broadcast, which recently shortened its name to “World News,” from “World News Tonight,’’ to reflect its electronic ubiquity.

He said he might emphasize some subjects of personal interest, like the controversy over performance-enhancing drugs in sports, or broadcast nine correspondent segments on some nights when Mr. Williams might to do seven.

But in the end, he suggested, all three broadcasts, including Ms. Couric’s, will effectively be following a template set decades ago.

“I know there’s a lot going to be made about the fact that the CBS thing is changing,” Mr. Gibson said. “It’s an evolutionary thing for CBS, too.

“Is there something special about her?” he added, referring to Ms. Couric. “I don’t know. I’ll let you determine that.”

Graphic: The Big Three and Their Successors