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Katie: Anchor away?

Here's a story by my colleague Gail Shister at the Philadelphia Inquirer that says Katie Couric's days may be numbered on the CBS Evening News. Before we go any further, let's note a couple of very important caveats.

Katiecouricnewest First, the story says if Couric is out, it will "probably" be after the 2008 elections. That's 14 months away, which is an eternity in television time. Couric's ratings could go up -- remember, she just got a new producer, Rick Kaplan, a month ago. Perhaps his plans for the newscast -- which certainly haven't been fully implemented -- will reverse the ratings slide. Perhaps CBS News will latch onto some story that will pull in viewers. Perhaps Charlie Gibson will be abducted by space aliens.

Second, the story is very clear that no ranking CBS executive said, on or off the record, that they're starting to pull the plug. The prophets of doom are all either at rival networks, or they're rank-and-file CBS people who were resentful that an outsider was hired to fill an anchor chair that has always been held by somebody who came up through the CBS ranks. That doesn't mean they're wrong, but it does mean they're speaking deductively rather than authoritatively.

All that said, the CBS bosses would be crazy if they're not giving at least some thought to an escape route. After the curiosity bump in the ratings the first couple of weeks, it'd been all downhill for Couric. CBS' idea that viewers wanted a reinvention of the evening news -- and that that reinvention would look something like the morning-newscast world where Couric had spent the last two decades -- was clearly wrong. Couric and the new format didn't bring in any new viewers, while a number of the old ones moved over to the business-as-usual newscasts at ABC and NBC.

CBS only made things worse by its insane over-hyping of its new star, which has cast her in roles that practically begged to be ridiculed. First there was the Katie Listening Tour, where she spent months as America's mother confessor, learning our secret fears and yearnings, for which the CBS Evening News was supposed to be a panacea. (Imagine my anger when it turned out Katie couldn't really cut my property taxes.)

Then there was Katie as One-Woman SWAT Team, not just reading the news but reporting pieces, doing live interviews, producing a blog, and probably cooking hamburgers in the CBS cafeteria during her spare time. The entirely predictable result was that some of the work was mediocre or worse (her live interviews were mostly ridiculous) and some of it was outright phony. The real revelation of the plagiarism scandal over Couric's blog earlier this month (one of her commentaries turned out to have been lifted from the Wall Street Journal) was that the only thing Couric was really contributing to the blog was her name; she had a staff of writers churning out all the material.

A lot of this can fixed, and some already has; the soft-news element that came to the newscast along with Couric has largely been jettisoned. Getting rid of the blog and the live interviews would be wise next steps. What's likely to linger, though, is Couric's image, the perky coffee-latsch pal from down the block, that worked so well for her in the morning but has been a millstone around her neck in the evening. And that's why CBS may eventually need a Plan B.

Update: Here's another piece on Couric that suggests she's the victim of an intra-CBS conspiracy. That's probably overstating the case -- by a factor of about a zillion -- but it's worth remembering that some of the people who are predicting Couric's demise are not exactly disinterested observers.

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