MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Katie Couric era arrives at CBS and a grateful America rejoices … for about 20 minutes, anyway

September 05, 2006
Tonight, I did something I hadn’t done in years. Like millions of other obedient Americans, I tuned into “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” to see the face that launch’d a thousand sappy magazine and newspaper articles in the months since her departure from NBC in May.
Helen of Troy, Katie wasn’t. Not that she was trying to dazzle us with anything but her ability to navigate a set without stumbling or missing a cue.
Wisely, Couric elected to leave the party-hardy dresses and fuck-me pumps she favored on “Today” back home — for the time-being, anyway — and chose, instead, one of those generic ensembles women in New York and Washington don when they want to be taken seriously. (Henceforth, ratings will dictate the length of her skirts and height of her heels.)
Otherwise, Couric seemed as prepared, personable and articulate as anyone else who’s paid millions of dollars annually to write the news off a Teleprompter. Given the visibility accorded her in our celebrity-centric media, the 49-year-old Virginian — I think CBS would prefer reporters to ignore Style Book protocol by referring to her as Katie in second reference — will get more than her fair share of “exclusive” interviews, and the show will benefit from her rapt attention to the job at hand. Soon, however, the other network anchors will demand equal time from newsmakers, and CBS will weigh their new superstar down with corporate glad-handing, speaking engagements, prime-time assignments and on-site reporting.
By this time next week, Couric will be part of the television woodwork, and millions of fickle viewers — myself included — will return to their regular routines. These include watching DVDs and reruns on cable, surfing the web and, yes, even eating dinner with the tube turned off. Like newspapers, the nightly network newscasts have been in free-fall for years, and it will take more than the addition of a photogenic anchor to reverse the trend.
Truth is, the heads of the broadcast networks only give a crap about the nightly newscasts when ratings sag, budgets need to be trimmed or a naughty word or bare nipple manages to get on the air.
If the executives took their responsibilities to heart, one of them would bite the bullet and do the unthinkable, which is to add another half-hour (including another 10 minutes of commercials) to the newscast and insert it into a “day part” that better accommodates commuter schedules. This would mean, of course, asking affiliates to relinquish a half-hour of prime-time access usually reserved for such cash cows as “Wheel of Fortune,” “ET” or reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” And, since the networks own and operate stations in the most lucrative markets, that dog simply won’t hunt … as Dan Rather would have said.
It explains why Couric used precious seconds of airtime pimping for, which looks exactly like a couple of hundred other websites and promotes CBS programming and personalities above real news. With such websites in their arsenal, CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox already have an iron-clad excuse for not adding another half-hour of news to their broadcast arms.
Network executives also want viewers to seek out their cable operations as sources for more complete coverage. The personnel may represent the second team, but it’s there … 24 hours a day … just like Time Warner’s CNN, which has been the network of choice for breaking news for most of the last 25 years. A half-hour doesn’t provide Couric, Brian William and Charles Gibson enough time to be more than a headline and sound-bite service, similar to those pages in big-city newspapers that encapsulate the material inside, so you don’t have to bother reading it.
Apparently, this is all the news most Americans want, anyway. Just consider the recent Harris survey that revealed half of all Americans now think that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction before our last invasion, up from 35 percent in 2005. It’s also been widely reported that a staggering number of people — teens and college students, mostly — list Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” as their primary source for news. This, even though Stewart has widely acknowledged that he reads “fake news” and never fails to point out that his program is on the Comedy Channel. (Fooled the folks who give out Peabody Awards, too.)
Judging solely by the first broadcast of “The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric,” the show is likely to be fast-paced and at least as informative as the other nightly newscasts. Couric’s natural perkiness will be exploited by producers — probably to a fault — but she isn’t likely to embarrass herself or her network, linguistically or otherwise. One hopes she has the gumption to say “no,” when one of her bosses asks her to verify the strength of a hurricane by tying herself to a tree, or don elaborate costumes to score dubious “beats.”
Tuesday night’s broadcast led with a fairly interesting visit to a Taliban camp within 10 miles of a platoon of American troops. (Reporter Lara Logan wore a chadur with a striking blaze of red fabric on her chest … nice touch.) This was followed by video footage of President Bush lying to his constituents about terrorism, and a knee-jerk interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman that also contradicted Bush. Apparently, Ford has a new boss and Chevron located a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, but Americans shouldn’t expect to reap the benefits because hurricanes can be mighty tough on oil rigs.
Instead of an in-depth discussion of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin’s methodology and its impact on the environmental movement — pro and con — viewers were directed to the website and pictures of mourning Aussies. Fast-food alarmist Morgan Spurlock was accorded the privilege of presenting the first “Free Speech” video column, and, while it didn’t suck, the segment was a luxury that half-hour newscasts shouldn’t afford.
There was other stuff, including a nice feature on a native Cheesehead who brightens the life of Nicaraguan orphans with portraits drawn by their American counterparts. The coup de’grace would come in the most obvious and cheesy way possible … when in doubt, play the celebrity card.
The big scoop came with the revelation of tightly held photos taken for Vanity Fair by Annie Liebovitz — yes, THAT Annie Liebovitz — of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ baby, Suri … or a child purporting to be Suri. No mention of any deal cut between the magazine and the stars, or between CBS News and Vanity Fair, for that matter. Neither did Couric question Cruise’s bizarre obsession with secrecy, or whether his connection to the Church of Scientology might have had something to do with the shielding of Suri from public view. Nope, just a cutesy-pie hand-out photo disguised as news.
Couric closed the show by encouraging her audience to go to the website, once again, to help her come up with a sign-off phrase, a la Walter Cronkite’s famous “And, that’s the way it is …” She probably got the idea from USA Today and AOL, organizations that poll their readers everyday on all manner of dopey subjects, but wouldn’t in a million years base any decisions on the results.
Let’s hope it’s something better than “Courage,” which Dan Rather adopted when things got too dark in his life, and, by extension, our’s. Maybe something like, “Now, don’t forget to go to for the rest of the news, commercials and plugs for other CBS programming … ya’hear.”
Let me know what they come up with. I get all the news I can stand via “Naked News.” Now, that‘s infotainment. — G.D.

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