Katie Couric and the Post-Anchor Era
Why the evening news and the anchors no longer matter.
When the Associated Press confirmed today last week's speculations that Katie Couric's anchor contract at CBS would not be renewed when it expires on June 4, waves of relief washed over me. Never again will the press force-feed me another news story about Katie Couric's struggle to succeed as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Never again will I have to read about CBS's plans to prematurely jettison her from her anchor chair, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2008. Never again will I have to endure another article about how her ratings are rising or how her ratings are falling or her ratings are holding steady. If I'm lucky and titrate my media dosage, I may never be subjected to another article about Couric again.
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Couric. As news readers go, she's OK, and certainly no worse than Diane Sawyer at ABC or Brian Williams at NBC. As an interviewer, she can be pretty good, as she proved in 2008 while sparring with vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. So her failure to lift the CBS Evening News from the cellar is not really her failure. The evening news programs at the three commercial broadcast networks have lost 55.5 percent of their audience since 1980, reports the Project for Excellence in Journalism—it's very hard to win market share when the market is disappearing. Also, CBS News was easily the weakest of the three networks when she took the chair in September 2006, and its evening offering had long been last in the ratings.
Couric's great misfortune was to become a broadcast network news anchor just as we were entering the post-anchor period. By post-anchor I don't mean that you could plop just any Arnold Zenker (article purchase required) into the studio and squeeze a good performance out of him. But the job and the audience aren't what they were when John Chancellor, Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and even Peter Jennings walked the earth. The explosion of news choices on cable and the Web have made the evening news an anachronism enjoyed mostly by an audience of older and less highly educated viewers, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. If there is little prestige, honor, and future being the anchor of the No. 1 show chasing an audience that is becoming smaller, older, and is less-educated, imagine how the No. 3 anchor must have felt.
Couric drew stellar ratings in her opening weeks as anchor, largely because the hype machine stoked so much interest in the first female to fly solo on an evening newscast. But then the aging creatures of habit who still tune in the nightly news returned to their previous routines, and Couric and CBS slumped to third once more. Last week, TVNewser reported that the CBS Evening News posted its lowest-rated first quarter ratings among total viewers since 1992, which is as far back as Nielsen ratings for the show go.
The diminution of audience size is one reason today's anchors are post-anchors. But the more important reason is that the programs they host aren't really news programs anymore. "The journalistic value of these programs is marginal at this point," George Washington University media professor Mark Feldstein told me in 2009. Indeed, the erosion of the evening show's journalistic value may have been part of the calculation in giving Couric the job. She was so expert at serving infotainment in her previous incarnation on NBC's Today program—she really was!—that the CBS News bosses must have figured that she'd be better at attracting the infotainment audience than a hard-news broadcaster.
So perhaps when CBS News signed Couric it understood that we had reached the end of the anchor-era better than I give it credit for. Indeed, when ABC News gave Diane Sawyer the keys to its World News telecast in 2009, they were overtly endorsing the CBS News strategy of hiring a middle-aged bottle blond from morning TV to chaperone all the unschooled geezers turning on their sets at night. Putting Couric and Sawyer in the anchor chairs was admitting that the programs had no future, only a past that could continue to be harvested for profits (yes, the evening shows are still profitable, thanks to pharmaceutical ads) until their audiences finally die off.
Oh, the shows occasionally draw fresh interest, such as when the anchors jet off to some new trouble spot in the world, as Couric and Brian Williams did earlier this year when Egypt blew up. The ratings of their shows bounced, too, but that sort of viewership is not sustainable.
In the coming weeks, as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal do backflips trying to figure out who will replace Couric as anchor, do yourself a favor and ignore the noise. The job and the programs no longer matter.
Don't miss this Couric piece by my friend Bill Wyman. On Twitter, @benschwartzy tweets this today: "Katie Couric's torpedo of truth tour is gonna be awesome." Top that with a Tweet of your own mentioning me, @JackShafer, so I'll see it. If you're a geezer, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)