Friday, May 18, 2007

Helping Katie

Lose the desk.

THE GHOST OF WALTER. Katie Couric is getting lots of bad advice these days. Sure, the ratings news is bad:

It surely wasn't what CBS dreamed about when Katie Couric was hired: the "CBS Evening News" last week recorded its smallest audience since and probably many years before that.

It also didn't help that the average of 6.05 million viewers came at the beginning of the important May ratings "sweeps."

[ABC's] "World News" averaged 8.1 million viewers last week (5.7 rating, 12 share). NBC's "Nightly News" had 7.5 million viewers, its fourth- lowest figure since at least 1987 (5.3, 12), and CBS had a 4.3 rating and 9 share. The year 1987 is a benchmark because that's when Nielsen began using its "people meter" technology.

What's more concerning than the raw data is the lamebrain interpretation of the reason for Katie's failure by some female CBS news producer:

I'm just surprised at how, almost 30 years after I worked on the "Evening News" as the first woman producer, that Katie is having such a tough time being accepted by the public, which seems to prefer the news from white guys, and now that Charlie's doing so well, from older white guys. I guess they want the reassurance of a Walter Cronkite.

I had no idea that a woman delivering the news would be a handicap. And I'm afraid that Katie's paying a price for being the first woman.

If you want to understand the news preferences of "older white guys," don't ask a female news producer. The truth is, older white guys -- and guys of every age and color -- are not watching the MSM network news programs at all anymore. They've migrated elsewhere. If you add up the total audience for the alphabet network news shows, it comes in at less than 22 million souls. That's in a nation of 300 million people. Pitiful. Maybe older people are all you can hope to attract, but even if this is your preferred fading demographic, the current approach is doomed to failure. Katie needs to stop listening to the octogenarian dinosaurs that have ruled CBS since Cronkite went deaf and started preaching to the world from his own inner voices, which are every bit as stupid as you'd expect to hear from a stentorian teleprompter reader who spent 30 years believing his own press clippings.

The world doesn't want Cronkite. Even in his heyday he was an overpraised accident of new technology. Now he's just another ham who doesn't know that the best way to keep people from thinking you a fool is to shut up before you prove it in print.

So -- as a certifiable "older white guy" -- let me offer Katie some advice. We've been around for quite a long time, much longer than you. Regardless of how low an opinion of us you have, we're alert to the fact that you -- and clothes horse Peter Jennings, and not-a-clothes-horse Charles Gibson, and handsome Brian Williams (God bless his perfectly tanned heart) -- are JUST READING THE NEWS. On TV.

Heavens to Betsy, Katie. Do you think we missed all those years of you on the Today Show, where you did your best to extemporize about the hot topics of the day? Do you really think we missed the fact that you're a spoiled, infantile, half-educated celebrity narcissist who obsesses about "the kids" in a last-ditch attempt to preserve some vestige of femininity? (And we refuse to mention the colonoscopy...)

Sorry. We noticed. Even those of us who caught you only by inadvertent accident, in hotel rooms where the only morning choices were your program or Diane Sawyer's.

I know this is a particularly bitter pill, but a lot of us older guys are hanging out at the Fox News Channel, where there are two things to attract us. First, not every single scrap and scintilla of news is designed to depict the United States of America as the most evil nation on earth, presided over by the dumbest man who ever drew breath. Second, the enormous lot of bad news that constitutes all news programs is mitigated by the use of quite good looking women to READ THE NEWS with a smile and a suspenseful application of female anatomy.

For example, there's a woman named Laurie Dhue who, for years, delivered snippets of news that earned more attention than your giant anchor desk at CBS could ever garner. Why? Because she eschewed the damn desk.

Would a desk really improve this picture?

Then there's the question of openness. Fox News pioneered a new kind of female news personality, one that never tried to be a distaff version of Eric Severaid, but a warm and welcoming figure. First there was E.D. Donahay, who started as a morning news hostess (sound familiar?) and went on to other things.

She stormed onto the morning scene.

Once again, note the absence of a desk. She was replaced by another up-and-comer named Kieran Chetry, who quickly moved on to a big contract at CNN, for much the same reasons:

CNN wanted her. Bad. They just didn't know what to do with her. Typical.

She also had a way of reaching out to the audience that the CBS Evening News could learn from.

Has Katie ever looked this, uh, enthusiastic?

It begins to look as if CNN doesn't know to make use of Kieran's assets any better than CBS knows how to make use of Katie's, but Fox News soldiers on. The latest rising star is Gretchen Carlson, who has proven that she too knows what it means to be inviting.

She doesn't want to, really, but she has to. It's a woman thing.

Nor does she deprive her beleaguered audience of comfort.

Answer: Two.

Yeah, we know about the MSM snobbery. Maybe Katie and her producers can't bring themselves to learn from Fox News. Sad if it's true, but nevertheless a factor to be dealt with. In that case, learn from Diane Sawyer, who never needed a lesson of any kind from the most successful 24/7 cable news station in history. She always knew the advantages of dispensing with a leviathan desk.

See? No desk at ABC.

With obvious benefits.

And being an enlightened, secularist liberal, Diane has also far surpassed the very limited Fox News capability to offer succor to her fans.

All in all, it's not too late for Katie. Yeah, she's not the sexiest news broad on TV, but if the audience is older guys, the good news is they're not as obsessed with pure looks as the younger fellas. Attitude counts for a lot. It's just barely possible that they might forget the colonoscopy nightmare if Katie can soften up a bit and quit acting like so much of a full-time colon.

A little cleavage and some artfully presented pantyhose cover a multitude of sins. If you're interested in ratings. But so far the evidence suggests CBS isn't interested in ratings as much as excuses. Pity.

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