Katie Couric in no hurry for change

MAVERICK: Katie Couric’s pointed questioning of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is still being discussed.
MAVERICK: Katie Couric’s pointed questioning of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is still being discussed.
(Associated Press)

The cabdriver had something he had to tell Katie Couric.

“He said, ‘By the way, thank you so much for that interview with Sarah Palin,’ ” the CBS anchor said Monday, recalling the conversation she had in a New York taxi the day before. “It is amazing that it continues.”

It’s been four months since Couric interviewed the Alaska governor, soliciting stumbling responses from the vice presidential nominee that became some of the most defining and parodied moments of the 2008 presidential race. But even now, the anchor is still feeling the after-effects.

Palin herself keeps talking about their exchanges, complaining to a conservative documentary filmmaker earlier this month that her conversations with Couric were spliced together unfairly and suggesting that the anchor had exploited her for ratings.

“I felt bad about that, because I have been very circumspect about the whole thing,” Couric said Monday. “So I don’t really understand what she meant.”

But there’s no question that Couric emerged from the campaign with more buzz than either of her more-watched rivals, in large part because of the Palin interviews and the “Presidential Questions” series, in which she pressed the candidates on topics as varied as Roe vs. Wade and infidelity.

When she anchors CBS’ presidential inaugural coverage today, Couric will be marking what has been something of a turnaround season for “CBS Evening News,” which has finally been getting attention for its reporting and not just its third-place ranking.

Even the ratings have seen a little lift. Since September, the newscast has averaged 6.5 million viewers, on par with its average last season for those same months. But during the last five weeks, the program has attracted an average of 7.22 million viewers, a 7% hike over the same period last year.

The broadcast still lags far behind top-rated “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams,” which has averaged 9 million viewers this season, up 2%, and ABC’s “World News With Charles Gibson,” which has pulled in 8.5 million, down 2%. But for the first time in two years, CBS executives can point to some signs of positive traction.

“We’re on a roll,” said Rick Kaplan, the newscast’s bullish executive producer. “I don’t think there’s any limit to how far Katie can go in the evening news venue.”

Added CBS News President Sean McManus, “There’s a real feeling of optimism and a real feeling that we’re certainly on the road of getting to where we want to get to.”

That’s a marked change from this time last year, when Couric, frustrated with the program’s performance, met with McManus and CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and discussed possibly leaving her post early, perhaps after the inauguration. The conversation was tabled until after the fall election, but media reports speculated that the anchor was on her way out.

Now, as Barack Obama prepares to take office, few expect Couric to be beating a hasty exit. CBS officials said they haven’t raised the topic again with the anchor.

“We haven’t talked about it,” said McManus, who added that he’s operating under the belief that Couric will fulfill the next 2 1/2 years of her contract.

“That’s certainly the way we’re planning for the future,” he said. “My position is the same as it’s been for a long time, which is Katie is the anchor of the broadcast we’re producing and I’m not discussing any plans to change that.”

Couric herself said she plans to stick around.

“As far as I know, unless you know something I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “And you could! Listen, I think there’s a lot of pride at CBS at what we’ve been able to do and what we want to continue to do, and you can’t really put a price tag on that.”

Colleagues say they’ve seen a shift in Couric’s comfort level as she has adjusted to the staid evening news format after 15 years on NBC’s “Today.”

“While she was always professional and did her job really well, now I really think she owns the anchor chair,” Kaplan said. “The audience sees that our Katie is in charge.”

While frustrated at times by the limitations of a 22-minute newscast, Couric said that she also appreciates the advantages of focusing on a single program.

“Sometimes I’m jealous of the real estate on the cable networks,” she said. “But when you have an insatiable monster, it does take time away from really great reporting and sometimes a great quality broadcast.”

During a 30-minute conversation in a makeshift office near the U.S. Capitol, where Couric will anchor the inaugural coverage today, the anchor appeared upbeat and relaxed, waving off an assistant who interrupted repeatedly to warn that she had get going for an interview with Michelle Obama.

Couric said the recent positive attention for her work has been gratifying, especially after experiencing what she dubbed “a hazing period of sorts,” in which the media scrutinized not only the failed effort to reinvent the “CBS Evening News” for younger viewers, but Couric’s outfits and demeanor.

“I mean, listen, it’s nice to be respected for your work,” she said, but added, “I take it all with probably a shaker of salt.”

“I hope that we’ll continue to do really good-quality work, and that’s really what I think about,” she said. “I mean, it’s nice not to be criticized on a regular basis in the press, but I got to a point where I really didn’t focus on it because it sort of sucks your spirit dry after a while.”

This week, she and news division executives have been focused on the inauguration, which CBS hopes to use to showcase its anchor and her skill at live broadcasts. Couric made an appearance during CBS’ NFL halftime program Sunday to promote the coverage, for which she’ll be on the air more than 10 hours, including a prime-time special for which she scored an interview with Obama last week. To further boost her profile, CBS secured a deal with MTV to carry its inauguration feed on its Times Square Jumbotron. Couric will also do a live hourlong webcast at 7 p.m. Pacific time on, a more free-wheeling format that she experimented with throughout the campaign.

It remains to be seen whether the extras will help drive more viewers to CBS’ coverage. Despite the spotlight on Couric’s reporting during the campaign, the network’s ratings lagged behind both its broadcast and cable competitor during major political events.

But no matter how many people tune in today, news division executives said they’re determined to keep the newscast’s momentum going. Plans are in the works to broaden the public’s exposure to the program through viral Web videos and other projects.

“I think people realized about a year ago that the ratings are what they are, and the only way to affect the ratings is to put on a really good broadcast,” said McManus, adding that there is “an enormous amount of pride” in the program and Couric’s work.

“We’re certainly not there yet. But we’re making enormous progress.”