August 31, 2006

U.S. network news future rides on Couric’s CBS debut

By Claudia Parsons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Burdened with a reputation for being
"perky" and "fluffy," Katie Couric debuts as "CBS Evening News"
anchor next week amid network hopes she can stem the tide of
younger viewers fleeing to Internet and cable.

After 15 years as co-host of NBC's "Today" show, Couric
will fill the evening news chair vacated by Dan Rather and once
occupied by Walter Cronkite, two of the best-known figures in
U.S. television news.

Miller Tabak media analyst David Joyce said the investment
in Couric -- who reportedly will be paid $15 million a year --
had already boosted CBS' share price and helped raise advance
advertising sales by "a couple of hundred million dollars."

"The hope is that not only does she drive advertising
revenues for the nightly news but also for the prime-time
programming," Joyce said, adding that CBS is hoping viewers who
tuned in to Couric will stay for the later shows.

Joyce predicted a ratings spike on September 5, but said
more significant would be to see whether the viewers stick with
CBS in the following weeks and months.

He said CBS' demographic is older than other networks,
comprising mostly 25- to 54-year-old viewers, whereas
advertisers will pay more for the 18- to 49-year-old
demographic that CBS hopes Couric will appeal to. CBS Chief
Executive Les Moonves complained last year the average age of
evening news viewers on all three networks averaged about 60.


A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the
Press last week showed Couric is already a more familiar
personality than her NBC and ABC counterparts, Brian Williams
and Charles Gibson, another former morning show host on ABC.

Asked for a one word description of the three, 66 percent
had something to say about Couric, while less than half had any
opinion of the other two. Most opinions of all three were
positive, but Couric, a former Pentagon correspondent, received
such markedly different adjectives as "perky," "cute," "bubbly"
and "fluffy."

Another Pew survey in July showed the percentage of people
who regularly watch nightly network news fell from 60 percent
in 1993 to 28 percent in 2006.

If network news is in trouble, CBS is in deepest. In a
typical week in August for example, rival NBC averaged about
8.1 million viewers a night compared to ABC's 7.5 million and
CBS's 6.9 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The bigger issue -- apart from Couric's gravitas or ability
to attract viewers -- was whether the three networks will
continue to offer early evening news when a syndicated show of
some sort could draw more advertising revenue, said Ken
Auletta, media columnist at The New Yorker magazine.

"The question becomes is there some point where it's not
profitable to have a big news division," he said, adding that
mergers were a possibility, for example CBS and CNN.

Michael Wolff, media columnist at Vanity Fair, said the
increasingly unprofitable evening news format may be doomed.

"It's a relic which had such a big position in American
culture for so long that it's just hard to get rid of," Wolff
said. "There's nothing that's going to rescue the evening
network news -- not Katie Couric, not God himself."