The least surprising surprise announcement in all of television finally came this morning, as Katie Couric told NBC’s Today viewers she is leaving the show after 15 years to anchor the CBS Evening News. (Well, her phrase–delivered after a quaveringly emotional goodbye speech — was that she was leaving to "work on" the CBS newscast and 60 Minutes, but one presumes she won’t be fetching coffee.)
Couric’s departure has already launched all kinds of questions: Will it be good for Katie? for CBS? for NBC? for women? for journalism? But before we launch into an orgy of media analyzing the media, it’s worth asking one more question: Is it really that big a deal?
For months, we’ve been hearing how Couric’s heading to CBS would be a sea change for the news business. True, a woman has never headed an network evening newscast, though that probably says more about the glacial pace of change at newscasts than any change in society. It will get big headlines. But bringing Couric to CBS is really the exact opposite of the kind of radical change CBS chief Les Moonves has promised to bring to the newscast. It is, in a way, the most conservative pick he could make.
Think about it: Moonves was famously quoted as saying he wanted to do away with the authoritarian, "voice of God" format of the news. Sure, Couric is known for being more populist and warm. But what better way to make an anchor into a Godlike central figure than by publicly courting her for months and offering her a reported $15 mil a year? You’d better get God for your money, if you’re laying out that kind of Mammon.
Hiring Couric, in fact, is a big vote for the antiquated, three-network-era notion of the celebrity anchor. In the cable news era, as CNN famously averred, "the news is the star," or, at least, opinion hosts like Bill O’Reilly are. On cable, where more viewers now get news in the aggregate, straight-news anchors tend to be interchangeable (like cable leader Fox’s) or niche stars (like Anderson Cooper). Sure, the network newscasts still get bigger individual audiences, but it’s less clear that stars matter there anymore. Brian Williams leads the news race on sheer inoffensive stability and the momentum of Tom Brokaw; Bob Schieffer is hardly a boldface name, but he’s actually raised CBS’s ratings as interim anchor. Spending a ton of money to land a big-name anchor? That’s a bold, fresh move–in, like, 1977.
Couric will definitely shake things up briefly. People under 70, with little use for evening newscasts–me, for instance–will tune in out of curiosity, when she debuts. But good luck making it last. Frankly, there’s probably nothing Moonves can do to sweep back the demographic tide: there are generations now who neither have the habit nor the schedules to plop in front of the news at 6:30 every night. Couric may be the multimillion-dollar attraction that gets new viewers in the door, but to keep them, it will be more important to change the format, style and tone of the show around her. (Jon Stewart’s agent should stay close to the phone.)
Couric’s hire will be big celebrity news. But is it big news-news? Not if you actually do believe that the newscasts need to change, radically, if they have any goal other than keeping their current audience until it dies. Katie might make a fine anchor. And her courtship shows that, in fact, God is not at all dead on the evening news. But will anyone watch Her?