An Idea Whose Time Has Come — and Gone

A few years ago, over dinner in Manhattan, a CBS network executive started talking about breakfast.

“A lot of people like cornflakes for breakfast,” he said.  “Not too many like cornflakes for dinner.”

He was talking about Katie Couric, who wasn’t doing well in the ratings.

It’s an interesting way to look at it.  Katie was cornflakes, immensely popular at breakfast time.  Not so much at dinner time when people crave more substance.

But who knew five years ago when CBS News decided to pay Ms. Couric $15 million a year to take over the anchor chair that it wouldn’t work out.  That she would start in third place and end up in third place – and with even fewer viewers than she had in the beginning.

So Katie Couric, who had the pre-requisites — name recognition, a great smile, and a history of success — seemed like a good pick.  Except, as William Goldman, the screen writer who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, among many other big movies, once famously said of the entertainment industry:  when it comes to picking winners, “nobody knows anything.”

So who’s next?  The only honest answer at this point is who knows. But whomever CBS picks, it’s going to be an uphill climb.  A lot of TV viewing is a function of habit.  You pick a network newscast for all sorts of reasons and it usually takes a lot for you to switch.  One thing, though, is for sure.  Millions of viewers who don’t normally watch the CBS Evening News will tune in during the first week of the new program.  They’ll want to see who the new (probably) guy is and what all the fuss is about.  They did that when Katie took over.  But before you could say “cornflakes” they were gone.  The same thing could happen again with Couric’s successor.  But the fact is, “nobody knows anything.”

And then there’s the biggest problem of all for the new CBS anchor – and for all the others.  Network evening newscasts are an idea whose time has come – and gone.  They made sense  40 or 50 years ago, before cable television and the Internet.  Back then, if you wanted to see national and world news on TV you had to be in front of your television set at dinner time.  If you weren’t there, you didn’t see Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley.  It was your loss.

Now, you can get the news at seven in the evening or two in the afternoon or noon or four in the morning.  And you can get it on television or on your cell phone or on your computer or on your underpants.  It’s everywhere all day long.  Once, Cronkite was the most trusted person in America.  Does anybody really think Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer is the most trusted person in America today?  Or to put it another way:  the network evening news isn’t that big a deal anymore.

So good luck New CBS News Anchor Person, whoever you are.  And while it may be true that when it comes to picking winners “nobody knows anything” this much I am absolutely sure of:  You’re going to need all the luck you can get.

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  • Tom Riggs

    Never liked her much… then the Palin interview … now I really do not like her much!

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  • Dan Farfan

    Katie announced — via People Magazine — that she’s leaving CBS Evening News.
    She’s exploring formats that will allow her to “do more multi-dimensional storytelling.”

    Hmmm.. What could “more multi-dimensional” mean to Katie? She’ll pretend her opinion matters AND pretend the ratings are good, at the same time, more?!


  • Kathie Ampela

    I predicted a year and half ago that this would happen…no shock here. It’s an insult to my intelligence that Katie is trying to spin her departure as “caused by poor lead-ins.” Here is how it suck at your job and you get fired. (I think that’s still how it works in America, but I’m not so sure.) I predicted on this very website that Katie would go back to the fluff brigade. That would be fine..we all need a dose of fluff every now and then..except the fluffy stuff ALSO leans Oprah has proven to us for 25 years. Soft liberal indoctrination with a nice coating of honey and powdered sugar…that is where Katie is headed. No thanks..I won’t be watching THAT either.

  • JDO

    To be honest, I didn’t even realize Couric was still anchoring anything. I cannot even remember the last time I watched the three Networks’ Evening News. I was just talking to my 10-year-old son the other day about the fact that, when I was his age, there were just the three (well, four with PBS) channels to choose from on tv. The Networks’ Evening newscasts have indeed been losing relevance for some time now. I’d say it was a slow, painful-to-watch death, but no one’s around to watch it.

  • John Petushin

    Couric is NOT TRUST WOURTHY , she’s a turnoff and a media whore . When she refused to apologize to the late Richard Jewell on air when CBS accused him of being the Olympic bomber and was found innocent, she insulted Mr. Jew and stated that he would not have had the wealth he made if not for the out of court settlement from CBS. I find her repulsive and evil.

  • Clarence De Barrows

    Bernie: What surprises me are the number of posts written here by folks who are so knowledgeable relative to the lame stream. People actually watched Couric more than one time where intelligent analysis of serious subjects is required? Captain Kangaroo, maybe, but Couric … sheesh!

  • Cyberquill

    What really irks me about all this (at least to the extent to which I care, so “irks” may be an exaggeration) is that Ms. Couric doesn’t simply state flat-out that CBS won’t renew her contract because her ratings were poor. She knows it, we know it, and she knows that we know. Yet when asked about it, as recently on Letterman, she presents the matter as if it was her own idea to leave the anchor chair in order to pursue other career options. In doing so, she looks like a complete phony, and phoniness is a quality one does not acquire overnight. On some subconscious level, people probably always picked up on her disingenuous streak, and that’s why they’ve never truly trusted her. Always liked her. Never trusted her. Obviously, the ability to make your audience trust in the veracity of what you’re saying is the sine qua non of a hard news anchor. Hence she didn’t do so well in that position.

  • Dan Farfan

    I tried Katie twice. Her first show and second show in the chair. In each episode her name was mentioned more than 10 times. Katie this, Katie that. She’d ask a scripted question of a field reporter, (written to make her appear smart) and he’d answer, “That’s a good question, Katie. What they are saying here. Katie, is that they hope that doesn’t happen at all. Back to you, Katie. Thanks for that report. You’re welcome, Katie.”

    Wowza! I had found my new drinking game! “Katie”
    Only made it through about 15 minutes of day 2.
    My sponsor made me promise to not watch anymore. 😉

    But seriously, if Katie’s pay wasn’t tied to ratings, CBS got exactly what they paid for – someone in the chair for $15M per year.


    • begbie

      You’re right.

      I think they tried to force feed the public to accept her because CBS knew from the beginning that it would be tough to get her taken seriously. I mean, you watch her newscast and you wonder if she even understands what she’s reporting. She comes off as a hand puppet.

      Cronkite, even Brokaw and Rather, seemed to have an understanding and an interest in what they were reporting. I never got that feeling from Couric.

  • EddieD_Boston

    Do you think any of the women on Fox are in the running? The problem is they’re always looking to find an interesting liberal. They keep coming up empty-handed.

    • williamthepleaser

      and / or empty-headed

  • Ron Kean

    Walter Cronkite will always be tainted by shaping the public view with his negative assessment of the Viet Nam war…when in hind sight we were winning. I don’t remember Chet Huntley but I think David Brinkley was good to the end.

    I liked Katie Couric in the morning show. So first it was Rather. Then Olbermann. Now her. I just wish Maher would retire. O’Donnell, Shultz and Matthews are lightweights.

    I think Dennis Miller is underrated. If someone in the mainstream media would change his politics and steal Megan Kelly from FOX, somebody would start seeing ratings again.

    • JDO

      I believe Dennis Miller (who, I agree, is underrated and hopefully not forever tainted by his stint on MNF) said he changed his politics after 9/11, didn’t he? Not sure if he’d go back, though if Megan Kelly was part of the deal I’D probably change my politics!

      • Ron Kean

        What’s MNF?

        • JDO

          Monday Night Football. I enjoyed his stint as the color guy on Monday Night Football but, really, he didn’t belong there. The first year he showed that being a fan of football doesn’t perfectly translate into making knowledgeable observations in the booth, much like being a “Monday Morning Quarterback” doesn’t mean you can coach. The second year Miller did MNF, he had clearly been “coached” more about the details of the game, and it allowed him to make more appropriate observations, but, after that first year, it really sounded forced. I just enjoyed it when he was Dennis being Dennis.

          It amazes me that, years later, MNF hired Tony Klownheiser, who was just as obviously out of his league. Thank goodness they corrected THAT mistake.

  • Paul Courtney

    Bernie: I had mixed feelings when you told O’Rielly you would not be taking over Katie’s seat at CBS. It would be tough to go back to the Network news, stopped watching many yrs ago in favor of M*A*S*H reruns (Alan Alda was less strident!). On the other hand, it’s fun to imagine the behind-the-scene stuff, like when the execs ‘splain to you that the Japan, Libya, or domestic-terrorist story must get bumped because Sarah Palin’s latest tweet must lead.

  • Bruce A.

    Good one Bernie. The nightly news ratings of the 3 major networks have been heading downhill for quite some time. The viewing public seems to have caught on to alternative sources of news. At what point do the experts realize this?