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Back to basics for Couric newscast

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- From the beginning, Katie Couric’s philosophy about her new post was clear.

“I didn’t come here to do a traditional newscast, and I don’t think CBS hired me to do a traditional newscast,” she told Reader’s Digest in February.

But a year after assuming the venerable anchor desk of “CBS Evening News,” that’s exactly what Couric finds herself doing, while the news executives who ardently wooed her from NBC’s “Today” show have glumly relinquished their hopes of turning a new audience on to an aging genre.

As the high-profile anchor marks her first anniversary at the network on Wednesday, the question hangs heavy over CBS: Can the news division pull its flagship broadcast out of third place with its once-blithe anchor now buttoned up?

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“You have to ask the question, does that fit Katie’s strong suit?” asked Rick Keilty, senior vice president of Dallas-based Belo Corp., which owns four CBS affiliates. “I think the personality of the individual is a really important ingredient, and that’s what’s challenging about what they’re attempting to do.”

CBS has not planned anything to commemorate Couric’s first year at the anchor desk; instead, she’s anchoring the broadcast this week from Iraq and Syria, part of an effort to burnish her news credentials.

The mood couldn’t be more different from last September, when the network was bursting with expectations that its high-wattage anchor would reinvigorate a staid format, draw scores of new viewers and propel the newscast out of third place.

But the program’s looser tone -- for a time, Couric opened the half-hour by saying, “Hi, everyone” -- and its feature-heavy lineup turned off many longtime watchers. A year into her tenure, the broadcast’s audience has shrunk by 8%, and the median viewer age has dropped to just 59.9 from 60.7.

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Audience resistance

Sean McManus, president of the news division, said he has largely given up on luring in a different demographic.

“I really believed that it was possible if we did a different kind of newscast, that we could attract some newer and younger viewers,” he said. “I didn’t think we anticipated as well as we probably should have the resistance to change on the part of the viewing audience for the 6:30 newscast.

“At this point in history, it’s probably not worth taking those chances,” he added. “You’re better off sticking to basics.”

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So news executives have gone back to the fundamentals as they try to shake off the disappointment of Couric’s debut season, a difficult year in which her every action and wardrobe choice drew snippy commentary.

“What surprised me is just how unremitting that spotlight would be and how frankly unkind,” said Rome Hartman, the broadcast’s former executive producer, who is now developing a U.S.-based newscast for BBC America and BBC World. “We said all along this is something that is going to take time for us to get right. In retrospect, we probably should have stuck to our guns more and attempted to press on and be a little more experimental for longer.”

But with Couric averaging 6.8 million viewers this season -- 1.6 million fewer than ABC’s Charles Gibson and NBC’s Brian Williams, now neck-and-neck for first place -- CBS’ eagerness to experiment has evaporated.

Gone are segments like Free Speech, an open-mike opinion feature; instead, resources are being directed to investigative reporting. Rather than block out time on the program for Couric to interview newsmakers, executives are focused on bolstering her news credentials with trips like this week’s journey to the Middle East.

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“We think we have a program that is extraordinarily informative and serves people’s needs and is time incredibly well spent,” said executive producer Rick Kaplan, the former CNN and MSNBC president who was tapped to replace Hartman in March. “It’s always been my experience that a great show gets positive audience response.”

A high-energy television veteran, Kaplan has injected a new atmosphere into the newsroom, demanding an all-hands-on-deck approach for breaking stories and juggling the story lineup until right before broadcast.

“What he did was send a message, a really positive one, that we’re going to be about the news, we’re going to go hard and aggressive on the big stories,” said correspondent Kelly Wallace, who joined CBS from CNN in January. “My sense is it’s really juiced everyone to focus on the product, as opposed to all the chatter going on.”

But leveling the mountain of conventional wisdom about the broadcast will not be easy.

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“The whole quality is beginning to pick up, and the rhythm and pace of the program says, ‘This is a serious news program,’ ” said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC correspondent and now senior fellow for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “But the perception of her lags behind the reality of the program, and it’s going to take a while to catch up, if it does.”

That disconnect disheartens staff members, who are weary of their downtrodden status. Pride in the compelling broadcast Couric anchored from Minneapolis a day after the bridge collapse was followed by disappointment when it received little critical recognition or ratings uptick.

“If I had one word, it would be ‘frustration,’ ” said Paul Friedman, the news division’s senior vice president, when asked to describe the newsroom’s mood.

Air of futility

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Veteran CBS staffers, who have weathered two years of tumult since anchor Dan Rather exited, are particularly gloomy. Many believe it’s futile to try to recast Couric’s broadcast.

“How many times can you re-kick a deflated ball?” asked one longtime producer. “A lot of people have that sense that it’s just not working. At the end of the day, she’s just not the person for the ‘Evening News’ job.”

Couric, who spent much of last week preparing for her trip to the Middle East, was unavailable for comment. But a source familiar with the internal dynamics said that, while she continues to push for new approaches to stories, she has appreciated the discipline Kaplan has imposed on the newscast.

Several editorial employees who work with her regularly describe the anchor as more optimistic and engaged that she has appeared in some time. After New York magazine published a piece this summer in which Couric complained about a lack of resources and seemed dissatisfied with her role, staffers noticed that she approached the job with new zeal, as if to reassure her colleagues that she’s committed. She now gives correspondents more feedback and pores over her scripts with an editor before each broadcast.

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“I think she’s doing everything in her power to say, ‘Let’s do the job,’ ” said one news division staffer close to the situation. “No one can deny it’s been brutal. But she does have this ability to keep going.”

The question is, for how long? News executives insist they expect her to stay at the anchor desk for her five-year contract.

“I’ve never have any other thought in my mind, quite frankly,” McManus said, adding that CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves has not given him a deadline for moving the newscast out of third place. “I think he feels very good about the newscast. It’s been 11 years; I don’t think anybody’s panicking.” (Moonves declined to comment.)By one important metric, the broadcast is doing well: Advertisers agreed to pay more for spots on the broadcast in the new season, CBS said, a sign of the continued value of programs that reach a mass audience.

Still, the moribund ratings have rattled some affiliates, many of which bookend the network show with their local news.

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The stations had “clearly hoped for a little better numbers than she’s getting right now,” said Scott Blumenthal, executive vice president of Lin Television and chairman of the CBS Affiliates Group. He noted CBS “had some success prior to Katie with the traditional format, and clearly they believe that is something that will return the audience to the show. Only time will tell.”

It could require more time than many had expected.

“To make the kind of progress I think we have to make is going to take a lot longer than I thought it was going to,” McManus said. “There’s no magic format or magic bullet. The only way to do it to keep putting on a good program.”

matea.gold@latimes.com

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