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Life After Katie

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So Katie Couric is leaving CBS earlier than planned, unless she’s not. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Couric may leave her third-place newscast by early next year, well before her contract expires in 2011; CBS is pushing back against the report elsewhere. True or not, this is one of those reports that would be denied right up until it actually happens, and in any event, no one would be too surprised at CBS and Couric’s trying to put this whole experience behind them after the election.

But what lessons can we draw from Couric’s failure (and I say “failure” only in the objective, numbers-based sense)? There will be plenty of them drawn—cultural, demographic, personality, gender-based—and some of them may well be valid. But the big lesson is not about any failing of Couric’s. Her show is fine; it came in with promises of big changes, it ended up delivering little changes, but it is a network newscast, in the grand scheme not much different from what Charlie or Brian do every night.

The problem is not with Katie Couric. It’s with her salary.

The cold, hard fact is: nobody is presently worth $15 million to anchor a network newscast. Not Brian, not Katie, not Diane, not Oprah. Katie was brought in on the premise that she and her star power—plus a revamping of the newscast format—could bring in new viewers to the evening news, rather than just steal a few hundred thou from the competition. She cannot. God cannot. It is a losing proposition. As I have written before, Couric’s newscast has been an expensive final refutation of the desperate belief that it is possible to reverse the slow, inexorable decline of network news.

Network newscasts are a holding effort. They are a rearguard action. They are prisoners of demography and cultural shifts that are as irreversible as the physical laws of the universe. Namely: fewer Americans have the time or inclination to watch a half-hour TV newscast at 6:30 in the evening; those who do will ultimately die; those who do not presently are not—unlike the generations before them—developing the habit as they get older.

Period. No star will fix that. No salary will fix it. No new set, no new format will fix it. Hiring Jon Stewart to do commentaries will not fix it. Newscasts are like an unsustainable pension system: the best those involved can hope for is to sustain them long enough to last out their own lifetimes—and not to go blowing $15 million better spent elsewhere in a bootless effort to reverse the trend.

That’s not to say network newscasts will disappear: they may stick around for decades—maybe not all of them—but if they do, they will be smaller, cheaper and less influential.

That’s not to say that the news media are in crisis. There will still be multiple, good sources of information and people will take advantage of them. They just will not involve sitting in a mass audience of 30 million to receive the conventional wisdom handed down from Manhattan TV studios.

That’s not to say that CBS can’t do better after Katie. It might. Newscasts are creatures of great momentum inertia, but whoever takes over from Katie might get CBS a few hundred thousand, maybe a million viewers from the competition, by offering something that looks more like what aged newscast viewers are used to seeing. (And yes, part of that familiarity may come from her replacement being an old white dude, but not necessarily.)

And finally, it’s not to say that Couric’s career will be over. As the Wall Street Journal points out, her name is already being bandied about as a replacement for CNN’s Larry King, in a format—and a time slot—where it may actually make sense to replace an expensive old man with an expensive younger woman. It’s just not worth trying that at 6:30 on the networks anymore. CBS spent $15 million a year to prove that. The other networks should thank them for it.

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