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CBS’ new script: Just the facts, Couric

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Times Staff Writer

Sometimes a makeover can be too extreme.

Faced with moribund viewership of its flagship newscast, CBS News is trying to stanch audience attrition by recasting the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” in a more traditional mold and tapping a veteran news producer to run the program.

Thursday’s hiring of Rick Kaplan, a onetime president of cable news channels CNN and MSNBC, amounts to the first public admission that network officials are dissatisfied with the performance of the newscast that had embraced new features aimed at wooing younger viewers. Six months after Couric’s much-hyped arrival in the anchor chair, the broadcast has languished in third place, while ABC’s Charles Gibson -- known for his matter-of-fact, old-school style -- has expanded his lead over CBS by an average of more than a million viewers a night.

The management shake-up coincides with a retreat from the kind of experimenting that characterized the CBS newscast last fall, when producers condensed news stories in order to air long newsmaker interviews and added segments such as “Free Speech,” a platform for viewpoints from around the country. Many of those features have either been abandoned or are being used less frequently.

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CBS executives now admit that they miscalculated the willingness of viewers to embrace a new approach to the evening news.

“I think it probably has to remain in a basic traditional mode,” CBS News President Sean McManus said. “I don’t think we’re looking to experiment with new ideas.”

On Thursday, McManus announced he was replacing Executive Producer Rome Hartman with Kaplan, a sobering acknowledgment of the challenges CBS has faced in remaking the broadcast for a new generation of viewers.

While the newscast has been able to marginally increase its viewership among young women, it has shed old viewers, who make up the bulk of the audience. So far this season, “CBS Evening News” has averaged slightly less than 7.6 million viewers, down 2% from last year, when Bob Schieffer anchored the program.

The mood at the network is substantially more subdued than it was last April, when CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves called Couric’s arrival a game-changing move.

Now CBS hopes that Kaplan, a longtime producer who has done tours at nearly every television network, can recharge the program with an old-fashioned hard-news approach and bolster the standing of Couric, the news division’s most costly investment.

Kaplan said he aims to make the broadcast a hard-hitting, analytical summary of the day’s news.

“We’ve got serious problems in the world,” he said. “By the time you get to the 6:30 show, the audience kind of knows all the headlines, but they want to know what to make of it. They’re looking for serious solutions.”

It remains to be seen whether the change in producers will be enough to help CBS catch up with its rivals. ABC’s “World News” now regularly swamps CBS and is jostling with “NBC Nightly News,” anchored by Brian Williams, for the top-rated spot. Gibson, who turns 64 today, is the oldest of the three anchors, and assumed ABC’s anchor desk in May with substantially less promotion than Couric. But the success of his unadorned style spotlights the lasting importance of traditionalism in a genre whose audience is used to a certain format and a buttoned-down delivery, analysts said.

“Audiences at that time of the evening are more traditional viewers who want their news in a succinct fashion,” said Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “When people watch him, they know they’re getting straightforward news without a lot of fanfare.”

During an appearance Tuesday at a Manhattan community center, Couric said she’s learned that adjustments must be introduced slowly to the program.

“Even nuanced changes are sometimes, ‘Wow,’ because I think people are very accustomed to their network evening newscasts playing out in a certain way,” she said during a Q&A; session at the 92nd Street Y. “So I think what we’re doing now is trying to do a really solid newscast that hopefully gives people important information.”

The anchor said she remains unfazed by the ratings.

“I try not to get that stressed out about it, honestly,” Couric said. “I’m one person, I’m in a new organization, a new culture, and I’ll do the best I can and work as hard as I can, but I’m not Herculean. I think I’m at a place where it’s a really exciting job, but it’s not my entire being.”

CBS executives are less sanguine. Couric’s five-year contract, worth about $15 million annually, represents a major investment. Even as network executives have publicly maintained confidence in the program, McManus held a series of internal meetings in recent months to discuss the newscast’s direction, sources said.

At a Bear Stearns media conference Monday, Moonves said the program is “in good shape,” but added that “it hasn’t worked ratings-wise as well as I would like.”

For his part, McManus said he “will be concerned if we don’t at some point make progress, but I don’t have a timetable, nor does Leslie.”

McManus said he believes Kaplan will help bring consistency to the newscast. He stressed that it was his decision to replace Hartman, although he ran it by Moonves and Couric.

“The show is making very good progress,” McManus said. “I just felt that we probably needed to make more progress faster, and this was the best way to do it.”

An amiable producer who is popular in the newsroom, Hartman was viewed by some as lacking the forcefulness needed to run the closely scrutinized newscast, which is subject to input from many top executives, network sources said. The former “60 Minutes” producer is expected to remain at CBS, although his exact role has not yet been announced.

His replacement is a well-known figure in the industry. Kaplan got his start in network news in 1971 at CBS, where he worked with Walter Cronkite. During a long career at ABC News, he helped shepherd programs such as “Nightline” and oversaw “World News” when it was No. 1 in the mid-1990s. He went on to run CNN and MSNBC, with mixed ratings success.

The new executive producer said he is optimistic that CBS’ newscast can expand its audience.

“I wouldn’t have come back to do this if I didn’t know that we could carry the day,” he said, attributing the flagging viewership in part to a period of adjustment needed by those unfamiliar with seeing Couric, a longtime “Today” show co-anchor, in a different role at a new network. Gibson, on the other hand, was a frequent substitute on “World News” before getting his current post, he noted.

“She is a well-known figure, a great news anchor, a great journalist, but she comes to a network not used to watching her,” he said. “And she’s a woman, not a man, and that’s an acquired taste -- easily acquired, by the way. But the change CBS made is more difficult for an audience to become comfortable with quickly.”

Despite his extensive experience, some TV veterans believe Kaplan faces an uphill climb.

“Rick is an extremely talented news producer,” said former TV correspondent Charles Bierbauer, now dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, who worked with Kaplan at ABC and CNN. “But he’s got to be able to apply that to a somewhat tarnished newscast, and it’s going to take more than just a little spit and polish.”

matea.gold@latimes.com


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