Couric's Farewell Isn't The End: How To Save News

Originally published on April 28, 2011 5:04 pm

Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

Katie Couric announced Tuesday that she was leaving her post at CBS Evening News, and would be looking for a job that will allow her to "engage in more multi-dimensional storytelling." There are plenty of commentators who say this is another nail in the coffin for traditional newscasts.

Uncool as it sounds, I'll be the guy to say it out loud: the old school network evening newscast still has value. It should be saved.

On this point, I have a mighty friend: David Letterman. At least, it seemed that way when Katie Couric was on his show, and he couldn't believe she might bail on her job leading his network's news division.

"It's not like it's a temp gig!" he told her. "Look at Walter Cronkite. Look at Tom Brokaw. Look at Brian Williams. Look at Peter Jennings. Look at all these people! They get in it, they saddle up and they ride into the sunset!"

Dave and I may sound like old fogies in an era of constant iPhone updates and 24-hour cable news, but we're not the only ones. Last year, an average 21.6 million people watched the three big networks' evening newscasts every night. That's four times the number who watched the combined total of the highest rated cable news shows in primetime, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. So if the evening newscast is dying, it's a pretty slow death.

I have a short list of ideas CBS can use to turn the patient around:

First, dump Entertainment Tonight. Or The Insider. Or whatever syndicated show fills the 7:30 p.m. timeslot on CBS affiliates. That's where network newscasts belong when we're all working harder and getting home later.

Then, hire more reporters. During Couric's tenure, CBS News reportedly laid off 10 percent of its staff. And when she leaves, the network should be saving some of her $15 million salary. That adds up to a lot more opportunities to hire new talent and boost news resources.

Merge with CNN already! It feels like half of CNN's stars appear on 60 Minutes anyway, even if it's just Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta. And CBS could benefit from the reporting muscle and 24-hour schedule that comes with a major cable news channel.

And it's time for CBS to own more stories. When ABC's Christiane Amanpour recently nailed a crucial interview with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, she slapped her news brand on a popular, breaking story. It's been more than two years since Couric did something similar, exposing Sarah Palin's shallowness in a probing interview. It's time for third-place CBS to show there's a new sheriff in town.

It's true, the people watching these newscasts are slightly older, slightly more female, slightly less educated — the folks TV executives value least. But they're also still one of the biggest single gatherings for news consumers anywhere in television. It still makes sense to redefine these shows for a new generation, rather than play it cool and lose a tradition old as television itself.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In the TV news industry, this was the biggest rumor floating around in recent weeks.

(Soundbites of news clips)

Unidentified Woman #1: Katie Couric might leave the CBS Evening News anchor chair.

Unidentified Woman #2: Katie Couric cutting the cord from CBS.

Unidentified Woman #3: Katie Couric is reportedly leaving the CBS Evening News anchor chair. She was the first woman ever to anchor...

INSKEEP: Yesterday, Katie Couric and CBS confirmed she really is leaving, which gave many commentators the chance to talk again about the death of the nightly network news, but not TV critic Eric Deggans.

ERIC DEGGANS (TV Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Uncool as it sounds, Ill be the guy to say it out loud: the old school network evening newscast still has value, and it should be saved. On this point, I have a mighty friend -David Letterman.

(Soundbite of applause)

DEGGANS: At least, it seemed that way when Katie Couric was on his show, and he couldnt believe she might bail on her job leading his networks news division.

(Soundbite of "Late Show with David letterman")

Mr. DAVID LETTERMAN (Host): It's not like it's a temp gig, you know?

Ms. KATIE COURIC (Anchor, "CBS Evening News"): No, five years isnt too temporary, though.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Look at Walter Cronkite.

Ms. COURIC: Thats true.

Mr. LETTERMAN: Look at Tom Brokaw. Look at Brian Williams. Look at Peter Jennings. Look at all these people. They get in it. They saddle up and the ride into the sunset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LETTERMAN: Into the sunset.

(Soundbite of applause)

DEGGANS: Dave and I may sound like old fogeys in an era of constant iPhone updates and 24-hour cable news. But were not the only ones. Last year, an average 21 million people watched the big three networks evening newscasts every night. Thats four times the number who watched cable news in primetime. So if the evening newscast is dying, its a pretty slow death.

And heres my short list of ideas CBS can use to turn this patient around.

(Soundbite of "Entertainment Tonight")

Unidentified Woman #4: We'll be back with more "Entertainment Tonight" in...

DEGGANS: Dump "Entertainment Tonight" or "The Insider," or whatever syndicated show fills the 7:30 P.M. time slot on CBS affiliates. Thats where network newscasts belong, when were all working harder and getting home later.

(Soundbite of news clip)

Ms. CELIA HATTON (Correspondent, CBS News): Celia Hatton, CBS News, Tokyo.

DEGGANS: Hire more reporters.

(Soundbite of news clips)

Mr. DEAN REYNOLDS (Correspondent, CBS News): Dean Reynolds, CBS News, Lafayette, Indiana.

Mr. SETH DOANE (Correspondent, CBS News): Seth Doane, CBS News, Toledo, Ohio.

DEGGANS: During Courics tenure, CBS News reportedly laid off 10 percent of its staff. And when she leaves, the network should have an extra $15 million laying around, annually. That adds up to a lot more opportunities to hire new talent and boost news resources.

(Soundbite of a ticking clock)

DEGGANS: Merge with CNN already.

Unidentified Man: Now, CNN's Anderson Cooper on assignment for "60 Minutes."

DEGGANS: It feels like half of CNN stars appear on "60 Minutes" anyway, even if its just Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta. And CBS could benefit from the reporting muscle and 24-hour schedule that comes with a major cable news channel.

Ms. DIANE SAWYER (Anchor, Breaking News, ABC News): And good afternoon to all of you. Im Diane Sawyer here at ABC News headquarters...

DEGGANS: Time for CBS to own more stories.

Ms. SAWYER: ABC's Christiane Amanpour made her way to the man at the center of the storm in Cairo. The embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak...

DEGGANS: When ABCs Amanpour nailed a crucial interview in Egypt, she slapped her news brand on a popular breaking story. Its been more than two years since Couric did something similar, exposing Sarah Palins shallowness in a probing interview. And its time for third place CBS to show theres a new sheriff in town.

Its true, the people watching these newscasts are slightly older, slightly more female, slightly less educated - the folks TV executives value least. But theyre also still one of the biggest single gatherings for news consumers anywhere in television.

It still makes sense to redefine these shows for a new generation, rather than play it cool and lose a tradition old as television itself.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.