The Great Katie Experiment is over: Katie Couric has announced, via an interview with TIME sibling People magazine, that she is leaving CBS as evening news anchor.
CBS brought Couric on in 2006 to bring in star power, generate buzz and grow the audience. She accomplished the first two. About her third-place struggle at the House of Cronkite, I’ll repeat what I said when reports of Couric’s leaving first emerged: “Even if you see Couric’s hire as a failure now, there is one thing it was that you cannot say about any of the potential next steps being floated for CBS: it was essentially optimistic…
Couric’s talent aside, her hire was based on a line of thinking unfashionable in the evening-news business: that the evening news business was not dying, and therefore that it was possible not just to take market share from a competitor but to actually bring in a new audience and increase the total evening-news viewership. You just had to spend enough money and try something different.
That didn’t happen, and the list of names bruited about for CBS—all of whom, by the way, are more than competent to sit behind a desk and read news copy—suggests that Couric is the last network evening-news anchor who will ever be hired on that premise.
Further to that last point: the buzz suggests Scott Pelley will be Couric’s replacement. Pelley’s a solid guy and will probably have no trouble hanging on to Couric’s audience, but I don’t think anyone is looking for big ratings growth from him.
As for how Couric did as an anchorwoman, ratings aside: I was never a raving fan, but I thought she did fine in the role, proving a fairly good interviewer and bringing some personality to the anchor chair. In that last respect, I think she suffered from a bias against her established persona. Couric, like NBC’s Brian Williams, combined an anchor’s seriousness with a refusal to take herself too seriously. But Williams—the subject of a great John Swansburg feature in New York magazine about his comedic stylings—benefited from his sense of humor, because people were happy to see that he’s not as stuffy as they might have thought. When Couric showed a sense of humor or irreverence, it seemed to confirm suspicions that she was too lightweight for the job.
(Was that attitude related to her gender? I think that people are more likely to develop that perception of a woman in TV news, yes, but not automatically: Diane Sawyer, a former morning-show host and now anchor for ABC, may not be in first place, but she never suffered Couric’s “perky” tag, either. Personal style and career history factor in, too; these things are always complicated.)
If Couric herself is broken up about how things have gone, she doesn’t look it; she’s reportedly entertaining offers to host a talk show, and some possible deals may also involve some type of network-news role. (She tells People she wants to “engage in more multi-dimensional storytelling.” Will she be traveling through time?) The fact is, while evening-news anchoring is still a prestige job with a (relatively) decent audience, it doesn’t have the same public profile it once did. Arguably, other news and talk programs have more influence and audience identification than the roughly interchangeable evening newscasts.
Seen from this perspective, anchoring The CBS Evening News may have been a temporary step back for Couric between one highly influential TV job (hosting Today) and another (starring in a talk show). Her next move, and CBS’s, will tell if Couric was a temporary blip in the history of The CBS Evening News, or if The CBS Evening News was a temporary blip in the history of Katie Couric.
[Update: CBS—whim Couric pointedly did not grant the scoop that she was leaving, just issued its statement: "There’s a lot to be proud of during Katie Couric’s time at Evening News. CBS News, like Katie herself, is looking forward to the next chapter." Brrr! Did someone leave a window open?]