The network evening news broadcast may be a vanishing art form — its demise has been forecast for years — but in the meantime the three major broadcast network programs continue to draw more than 25 million viewers a night and generate lots of cash for their owners.

In recent weeks, we have seen another of the shifts in the ratings race that occur every few years: ABC’s Charlie Gibson is now in first place, with Brian Williams second on NBC, and as usual, CBS in the toilet in third place.

This recent realignment provoked new criticism of Katie Couric as the reason for CBS’s continuing souris. Her predecessor, Dan Rather, who in a radio interview this week accused CBS of “dumbing down and tarting up” the broadcast, became her latest critic. Les Moonves, the head of CBS, promptly attacked Dan for indulging in “sexist” comments about Katie.

The “dumbing down and tarting up” aphorism is actually one of Dan’s standbys. He used it in an interview I did with him on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer in 2001. He was referring to the pressure from management to brighten the evening news — his evening news — format in another vain attempt to lure younger viewers to the broadcast. His “tarting” phrase was gender neutral, and still is.

Katie Couric is a fine, professional broadcaster. She demonstrated almost perfect pitch as anchor of the Today Show: serious in the substantive interviews, bright and funny in the lighter stuff. Making her the CBS evening news anchor may have been a mistake, a possible misuse of her talents, but the decision had a certain logic. Bring in a morning star, a proven performer, to the evening news and see if she could light a fire.

It is clear Katie has been unable to do that. She has been hobbled from the start by an overly-cute, even precious story selection and format that doubtlessly annoys many viewers. Those people who have 30 minutes to sit down in front of the tube at 6:30 p.m. or 7:00 p.m. want hard news in the 21 minutes they get between commercials, not frivolous entertainment. Instead, the management at CBS stressed the gimmicks, in a vain attempt to reinvent a wheel that doesn’t require reinvention.

So, bottom line: Katie is neither the problem with the CBS Evening News, nor the solution..
This topic, incidentally, will be the lead discussion on tomorrow’s Reliable Sources broadcast on CNN at 10 a.m. EDT, Sunday, June 17. I’ll kick it around with the host, Howard Kurtz, and guests Mark Jurkowitz and Emily Rooney. Should be fun.

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