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Katie Couric Reportedly Leaving; Can Anyone Get You to Watch CBS News?

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An Associated Press press report cites an unnamed CBS network executive as saying that Katie Couric, as long rumored, is leaving the CBS Evening News as anchor to launch a talk show. The departure—which official network reps and Couric’s people met with non-denial no-comments—would be at an undetermined date; her contract is up in June.

The list of potential replacements is sizable and—compared with the hugely-hyped Couric hire in 2006—unexciting: Russ Mitchell, Scott Pelley and Harry Smith are named in the AP piece. And to be blunt I have to wonder if the important factor here is not the names but the numbers. Whoever replaces Couric, I have to imagine it will be at a considerably smaller salary than her $15 million a year. And that says something not just about Couric’s tenure but about where CBS (and others in the business) see the evening-news audience going. (Hint: not up.)

Say what you want about Couric’s credentials to take over the evening news after the Today Show. Say what you want about her performance since (her damaging campaign 2008 interview with Sarah Palin didn’t endear Couric to conservatives, for instance, while I suspect fans of traditional evening newscasts found her attitude to the job too flippant). But 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 being 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. Let’s be blunt: if you’re putting Harry Smith behind the desk, nothing against him as a newsman, but it is not to revolutionize the format or bring in a new generation of viewers. It is to manage decline and try to get a bigger proportion of a shrinking news audience.

Which sounds like a diss, but I can’t say it’s the wrong idea. Perhaps it’s time CBS and the other major networks recognize that the relative decline of the 6:30 news audience is just a product of unchangeable social and demographic forces that mean that fewer people are going to make an appointment to watch those shows. (They may time-shift them or watch them online, but then there’s a whole world of competition for their attention.) Better to save some bucks on the lead talent, which could go toward putting more reporters in the field.

Maybe I’m being naive in that last expectation. Or maybe I’m being too cynical overall. Is there something CBS could do that would get you watching their evening news again (if you ever did)?