The Associated Press has confirmed what was first reported last week: Katie Couric will leave the anchor chair at CBS when her contract ends in June. As we noted previously, there was no real impetus for the network--or Ms. Couric--to extend the deal. Five years into her run, CBS was stuck with a third-place evening newscast, while paying Couric an annual salary of $15 million.
Now, as the AP observes, the question becomes: can Couric's successor--whoever it may be--lift CBS out of the ratings cellar? It's hardly impossible, but to borrow a phrase from Don Rumsfeld, it promises to be a long, hard slog:
News consultant Andrew Tyndall, who tracks the content of the evening newscasts, said he sees "no real way at all" for CBS to escape the basement anytime soon.
CBS is harmed by poor ratings for local newscasts at many affiliates and CBS-owned stations, offering poor lead-ins to network newscasts, Tyndall said. Many viewers don't switch networks from local to national news.
"You can't separate the performance of the evening news from the performance of the local news," Tyndall said.
The wire service notes that CBS was hurt by the loss of strong affiliates in cities such as Atlanta and Detroit, where the Evening News (and other network shows) now air on low-rated UHF stations.
But that's something of a red herring; all of the broadcast networks lost key affiliates in the 80s and 90s, when local stations were cutting the best deal with the highest bidder. ABC, for example, lost stations in Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans that delivered far more viewers than their eventual replacements. Yet, ABC has somehow managed to remain in second place in the network news wars, behind front-runner NBC.
Likewise, CBS isn't the only network with laggards among its owned-and-operated stations. Ratings at WNBC in New York and KNBC in Los Angeles have almost collapsed in recent years, allowing their CBS competitor to move into second place in some time slots. And with CBS's dominance in prime time, some of the network's owned stations (such as WCBS in New York) are now #1 at 11 pm, for the first time in decades.
So, Couric's ratings problems aren't merely the result of her affiliate line-up, or weak local newscasts at the CBS O&O's. In fact, AP TV writer David Bauder seems to go out of his way to make excuses for The Perky One.
Maybe he's angling for that first interview after she leaves the anchor chair. Or (more likely), she's been a useful, anonymous source in the past. Whatever the reason, Bauder seems unable to reach the obvious conclusion: Couric was a colossal failure as anchor of the CBS Evening News because viewers didn't like her or the broadcast. Whatever she brought to morning TV was soundly rejected at the dinner hour.
And that, in turn, may prompt a reassessment of Couric's success on NBC's "Today Show." For years, it was conventional wisdom in the TV biz that Katie was instrumental to that program's phenomenal success, beginning in the mid-1990s. But the program has remained a ratings juggernaut even without Couric on the couch. In fact, many would argue that NBC's morning show hasn't missed a beat. Hmmm...maybe the presence of Matt Lauer, the hiring of Meredith Viera and poor decisions at ABC's Good Morning America were also responsible for Today's continued dominance in the morning.
According to the AP, Couric's next project will be a daytime talk show, syndicated (perhaps) by CBS. In the post-Oprah era, the departing CBS anchor apparently believes she can be the Next Big Thing. But as anyone in the TV business will tell you, daytime TV is far more cutthroat than the nightly news wars. Syndicated shows come and go, rising and falling on their audience numbers.
For someone like Ms. Couric, syndicators (and local stations) might commit to a two-year deal--something almost unheard of daytime TV. But if the ratings go south, Katie will get the hook far faster than on the Evening News, with affiliates shifting her program to the graveyard timeslot to cut their losses and fulfill the contract.
Put another way: if Couric launches her new show in the Fall of 2012 (as widely reported), we'll know by the Spring of 2013 if the program is a hit or flop. Clearly, it's hard to judge the potential of a Couric talk show without a pilot, which will come months after she signs a syndication deal. But at this point, we don't think Judge Judy has much to worry about.