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Katie Couric's Newscasts Short on News

Sunday, 10 September 2006 12:00 AM

LOS ANGELES -- It took a few nights, but the shape of CBS' evening news with Katie Couric at the helm is coming into focus.

More and more, it looks as if Couric has not so much left NBC's "Today" but instead brought it with her. True, there are no celebrity interviews, shots of people holding up signs or weatherman-anchor banter - at least, not yet - but there is a new format, attitude and array of features that have more in common with morning news shows than the traditional evening shows.

The old evening news formats were fairly straightforward. You lead with the biggest story of the day, and then you follow with other news stories, plus an occasional feature or investigative piece.

"CBS Evening News With Katie Couric," just like "Today," also leads with the big story. What comes after that, though, are interviews, a "FreeSpeech" feature segment, short featurettes under the "Snapshot" banner and then a longer feature story, often with an emotional tug. You can't say this newscast ignores news, but it dilutes it considerably with other ingredients, like those bottles of fruit juice that, upon careful inspection, say "10% juice" in small print on the label.

Couric is the first woman to solo as an evening news anchor, but, more significantly, she is the first person to have that job who is regarded more as a celebrity than as a journalist. That, more than anything, explains the preoccupation with what she wears and how she accessorizes. (For those keeping score, her legs received so much attention Tuesday -- all of it favorable, by the way - that she switched to longer skirts Wednesday and Thursday.)

She has a crisp, clear delivery and an engaging style, hardly a surprise to anyone who has seen her on "Today" for the past decade and a half. Although she is less casual than she was in the morning, she is nonetheless more conversational and personable than any of her male counterparts either now or in the past.

Her first news story on Tuesday's premiere show was a breathless piece from Lara Logan that placed more emphasis on her being allowed access to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan than on any substantial news development. That was followed by a brief but thought-provoking interview with New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, a well-spoken expert on world affairs.

The next day, Couric scored an interview with President Bush, who repeated well-practiced sound bites. Again, the most important thing was the exclusivity, not the content. And again, the best part was the thoughtful analysis from Couric's predecessor, Bob Schieffer.

There was more of Bush leading Wednesday's show, again all about terrorism. This time, though, the piece by Jim Axelrod was balanced with a suggestion that linked the president's words to the midterm elections as well as other stories about Bush's declining popularity. The obligatory Couric interview was saved for an "Eye on Your Health" story about a new vaccine for prepubescent girls to prevent cancer.

The "freeSpeech" segment purports to give wide exposure to interesting viewpoints but only did so Wednesday, when Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario described the tragedy when illegal immigrant mothers leave their children behind. Tuesday's riff on national unity came from Morgan Spurlock, whose books and documentary series on FX already give him a significant platform. On Thursday, producers turned over the podium to conservative Rush Limbaugh, apparently because having a daily radio show for years doesn't provide adequate opportunity for his views on patriotism and terrorists to be heard.

The "Snapshot" feature that follows consists of soft news items, everything from photos of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' baby to the disappearance of Oscar the Grouch because of Smithsonian remodeling.

It is understood that viewership of network evening newscasts has trended downward and that corporate brass wants desperately to make these shows more attractive, particularly to a younger demographic that never watched them in the first place. Maybe what they should have done was use the excitement generated by Couric's premiere to show the larger audience what they had been missing all these years. Maybe this was the golden opportunity to show how newsgathering technology and skillful writing and reporting could make seemingly remote events relevant and compelling. Guess we'll never know.

Oh, one more thing. Couric confessed that, after months of deliberation, she still hasn't found a signature closing line she really likes. She asked viewers to suggest some. Initially, I liked, "Good night from all us at what used to be CBS News." Now I'm more partial to "In case you're not sure, you've been watching CBS News."


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LOS ANGELES -- It took a few nights, but the shape of CBS' evening news with Katie Couric at the helm is coming into focus. More and more, it looks as if Couric has not so much left NBC's "Today" but instead brought it with her. True, there are no celebrity interviews,...
Sunday, 10 September 2006 12:00 AM
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