Who Let the Girl Into the Boys’ Club?

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The New York Sun

There is no doubt CBS should get a bang for its buck when Katie Couric takes over as the first solo woman anchor in the history of network nightly news. Ms. Couric, who is reportedly earning a whopping $15 million a year, will also run down the day’s stories on the Web, participate in a Web blog, record a one-minute “Katie Couric Reports” for radio, Internet, and wireless users, and anchor CBS’s 5 p.m. radio newscast. She also will be a correspondent on Sunday’s “Sixty Minutes.” Yes, it will be all Katie almost all the time.

All this is being done to add some firepower to her evening news show. The networks’ national news broadcasts have been losing viewers for years. Currently the “CBS Evening News” is in third place in the ratings, behind NBC and ABC.

Les Moonves, CBS’s President and CEO, has predicted Ms. Couric’s debut will be the “biggest event of the fall,” with a commensurate ratings spurt. And certainly, her imminent arrival in the anchor chair has been a mega-media happening for months, ever since she announced last spring her decision to leave NBC’s “Today Show,” where she had been the co-host for 15 years.

As part of the promotion, there was her tear-filled, highly rated farewell special, followed by a cross-country “listening tour,” arranged by the same team that handled Hillary Clinton’s “listening tour” during her first Senate campaign. Reporters were barred from events in Pasadena, Calif., Minneapolis, Dallas, and Denver, where Ms. Couric “listened” to people tell her what they wanted on the evening news.

There has also been a flurry of press speculation about whether Ms. Couric would trade in her familiar morning show wardrobe of short skirts, sling back stilettos, and dangly earrings for a more sophisticated evening anchor look. In her official CBS portrait, she is already elegant in a trim black suit and pearls. For her debut, CBS is also providing a new set and new music written by Oscar winner James Horner, who wrote the emotional score of “Titanic.” There is even the possibility that Walter Cronkite, in a voice-over, will serve as her announcer.

And just in case anyone is still unaware of “the biggest event of the fall,” Ms. Couric’s face will adorn every bus in New York throughout September; posters of her will be in subway stations, Grand Central and Penn Stations, all as part of a $10 million publicity campaign, one more typical of promoting a new comedy or drama series than a change at the anchor desk. ABC has switched nightly new anchors twice since the death of Peter Jennings in August 2005: First Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas took over; more recently Charles Gibson ascended to the anchor’s chair with minimal hoopla.

But then there has never been anyone with Ms. Couric’s superstar wattage at the helm of a national news show. Though much has been made of the fact that she is the first woman to do this job, there are women anchoring local news broadcasts all over America. In fact, except for “the sports guy’ and the weathercaster, men are fast disappearing from TV newsrooms. What has made Ms. Couric so promotable is not her journalistic credentials but her A- List celebrity status.

During her 15 years on “Today,” she acquired millions of loyal fans, mostly baby boomer women. Her perky smile was frequently featured on the covers of traditional women’s magazines, and in interviews she always talked openly about her personal life, including the death of her husband from colon cancer and her challenges as a single mother. Even with a seven-figure salary and an increasingly glamorous image, she was able to market herself to a large, sympathetic female audience as “a typical working mom.”

In her new role as news anchor, Ms. Couric will likely remain focused on appealing to this demographic, which could be crucial in giving her broadcast the ratings boost it needs. For example, in recent weeks, Ms. Couric has given only cursory, tightly controlled interviews, always with a public relations person on hand, to most TV reporters from major publications. But she spent hours in her apartment with a female journalist for a Sunday supplement.She talked about a variety of personal subjects, including her wish to be married, possibly to a younger man, and her views on plastic surgery. That reporter found her “a classy, approachable neighbor.” But when TV reporters have asked her what she will be wearing on her show, she has snapped, “You’re kidding, right?” Still, one doubts if CBS will mind if new female viewers tune in on Tuesday to check that out rather than the day’s headlines.

Ms. Couric’s ascension also reflects another broadcasting trend: the increasing “feminization of the news.”The analyst Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, a network news monitor, who has tracked news broadcasts for decades, has noted that there has been a decrease in “hard news” stories on topics such as government and politics and an increase in “softer” stories. He also found that when Ms. Vargas was in the ABC anchor chair she did many more “family” stories than male anchors.

If Ms. Couric plays to her strength, she also will do more reports about health and women’s issues, the kinds of stories that especially interested her — and her audience — on “Today.” She also has said that viewers have asked for “more hopeful stories,” which can only mean the human interest “triumph over tragedy” features — another morning show staple. And no doubt, Ms. Couric’s celebrity status may help her win what, in competitive news circles, is known as “the big get,” an upclose and personal interview with that day’s biggest newsmaker, whether the newsmaker is a movie star or a terrorist. She has already scored her first “big get.” She will be interviewing President Bush on Tuesday night.

After all the opening night attention has faded, will Ms. Couric have the staying power to maintain ratings and even bring a younger audience to her version of the nightly news? A recent Gallup Poll reported she has entered the anchor race better known than her competitors, Brian Williams of NBC and Mr. Gibson. And she has higher favorable ratings. But she also has far higher unfavorables. In the past, Ms. Couric has been especially unpopular with conservatives, who have considered her reporting frequently biased.

Add to that the fact that evening news viewers, like those who watch the morning shows, don’t easily change their viewing habits. Even if Ms. Couric forges ahead in the ratings, any innovation she brings to her show can be copied and competition can always intensify. Tellingly, the Gallup Poll found that the best-known and most-liked news personality is not another anchor, but it is another woman.That news personality is Diane Sawyer.

The New York Sun

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