Bill Carter and Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times are advancing the timetable for Katie Couric's expected departure from the CBS Evening News. Citing sources close to the anchor, they report that Couric could leave the network is just a few weeks, less than two years after she moved into CBS anchor chair.
Thursday, The Wall Street Journal claimed that the network was in talks to end Couric's tenure as anchor of the Evening News, with a departure sometime after next year's presidential inaguration. The NYT article suggests a much earlier resignation, based on a reported meeting between Couric, her agent and two senior CBS executives: Les Mooves, the president of the network, and Sean McManus, head of the news division.
With its flagship newscast mired in last place, CBS has apparently judged the Couric experiment a dismal failure, and is preparing to, once again, reshape the Evening News. Recent Nielsen ratings confirm the scope of the network's problems. With Ms. Couric in the anchor chair, the Evening News drew an average of only 5.9 million viewers during the last week of March, compared to 8.3 million for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, and 8.0 million for ABC's World News with Charles Gibson. CBS's evening newscast has been in last place for more than 12 years.
You don't need to be a broadcast executive to understand that lower ratings and declining audience figures translate into decreased ad revenue and diminished profits. But poor ratings for the Couric broadcast have produced a ripple effect at CBS, and among its affiliated stations. With fewer people watching, the Evening News generates a smaller lead-in audience for newscasts on local stations, including those owned by the network. That has produced howls from the affiliates, who rely on local news as a major source of advertising revenue.
And, if that's not enough, CBS is more reliant on revenue from its broadcast division that other media companies. Without a cable news partner or major cable presence, the so-called Tiffany network is more susceptible to slumps in the broadcast advertising market--or its own poor programming decisions.
Then, there's the matter of CBS's local stations, which have been less profitable that rival outlets owned by NBC and ABC. Dominating prime-time programming for years, CBS made only fitful efforts to improve its local stations, while ABC built its owned-and-operated outlets into cash cows. Today, ABC-owned stations dominate the local ratings in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia, and its San Francisco outlet (KGO-TV) is near the top of that market. As you might expect, high ratings for local news programs translate into bigger audiences for network evening newscasts.
Which brings us back to Ms. Couric. Having worked in the broadcasting salt mine, I can assure you the decision to part ways with the star anchor was not made lightly. In addition to audience ratings, CBS has conducted its own, extensive market research into its news product and anchor. Those studies have reached the same conclusion as viewers; Katie Couric is a horrible fit for the Evening News, and CBS will face further audience erosion if she remains in the anchor chair. At $15 million a year, the network can no longer justify her hefty salary.
While Couric's representatives and the network negotiate her departure, the scramble to succeed the Perky One is already underway. But securing a replacment may not be that easy. CBS made a run at NBC's Tim Russert before signing Couric, but there's no indication he would be more receptive this time around; NBC's main anchor, Mr. Williams, isn't going anywhere, and the same holds true for ABC's Charlie Gibson. Among the cable anchors, Shepard Smith of Fox News Channel recently signed a new deal that pays him as much as his broadcast network peers. Scratch him off the list.
Among anchors with current or former ties to CBS, the pickings are equally slim. CNN's John Roberts left CBS in 2006 because he was not named to replace Dan Rather. 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley was also a contender two years ago, but network executives decided he didn't have enough charisma for the Evening News. ABC's Diane Sawyer might be interested, but on the heels of the Couric disaster, it's unlikely that CBS will put another woman in the nightly anchor slot. CBS morning host Harry Smith is another candidate, but his show has always been a ratings laggard, and it's doubtful he would be more successful on the evening broadcast.
In fact, the most likely successor to Couric is the "interim" anchor who preceded her, Bob Schieffer. After announcing plans to retire this year, Schieffer revealed a few weeks ago that his departure was being delayed, but no one connected that decision to possible changes at the Evening News. Now, with Katie heading toward the door, it's almost a sure bet that Bob Schieffer is the once-and-future anchor of the CBS Evening News.