Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The future of CBS's The Evening News?

This morning's New York Times contains a story by Bill Carter and Jacquest Steinberg that will surprise no one who's been paying attention. "CBS Plans to Change Evening News Format" reveals nothing all that new.

1) Katie Couric is being pursued to serve in some capacity at CBS News.

2) John Roberts isn't in the running.

3) Leslie Moonves is toying with the idea of a multi-anchor format, the same type used on CBS's The Early Show which prominently features Mrs. Leslie Moonves: Julie Chen.

4) Mary Mapes is the only one without a job over the CBS "study." (The three asked to resign have yet to do so.)

5) Moonves is hoping there's a place for Jon Stewart in the new Evening News format.

My contact at CBS (the one who compared the "panel" to an inquisition in the now missing post) says the following.

1) The interest in Couric is genuine.

But if Couric is interested, she'd be smart to get the details in writing. The interest in Couric is two-fold. The most obvious reason is that, due to her popularity, she'll draw attention right away to the eternally third ranked show. The less obvious reason (and this is "the chatter" according to my source) is that Couric could be in the spotlight/hot seat "for exactly one year."

Moonves is struggling to fill a spot he didn't realize would be open a year ago, goes the "chatter."
If it doesn't work out, Couric could quickly find herself back on the morning shift doing CBS's The Early Show which "would allow The Early Show to take on Today." It would also "permanently alter the format of The Evening News which is Moonves' primary goal."

2) Internal polling found John Roberts has failed to connect with viewers of The Evening News.

Roberts isn't being modest when he makes his remarks to the New York Times that "neither myself nor anyone who represents me has been contacted about any kind of role with the future of 'The Evening News.' "

He's also not telling the full story: that it's been conveyed to him that, due to polling, there's "no interest in him sitting at the desk."

"Moonves was happy over the data. His biggest fear was getting stuck in a long term contract with another 500-pound gorilla who'd be coming in with strong ideas of what should be covered."

3) Moonves is aware of the problems Rather had connecting with audiences when he began anchoring The Evening News and is making it very clear that they will not go that route again.
Any high profile signing, such as Couric, should "not be taken in by talks of 'let's not get locked in on something' because the concern is one sided." Translation, Moonves is more than happy to put Couric or anyone similar behind the desk for one year and then quickly oust them.

"We're dead last, we've been dead last. His concern is with altering the format and he's perfectly willing to sacrifice Katie or whomever to get audiences used to a multi-anchor format."

4) There's little doubt that Moonves likes the format, one he feels gives CBS more weight and input and avoids "the network being held hostage by a single anchor." But "some also worry that this is part of some plan to elevate his wife [Chen] to The Evening News."

5) One person who's been phoned but no one's talking about? Anderson Cooper. "This really seems more like laying groundwork for 2006, honestly."

6) Moonves' outloud musing? Over Nina Totenberg of NPR. The instant credibility of someone proven at NPR, such as Totenberg who's been mentioned twice in meetings, is something Moonves is toying with. But when Tavis Smiley's name was tossed out to Moonves, "he made a sour face and suggested [that] the manner of his departure from NPR has left Smiley damaged and with a reputation for being tempermental."

7) There is no interest in Bob Schieffer who has offered his services as a semi-permanent substitute. "Bob can't pull Face the Nation out of the toilet. He's [Moonves] prepared to remain dead last, he's not ready to flush The Evening News down the toilet."

8) "Ideally, what Moonves would like is Couric to bring attention to the format, an NPR correspondent who would add gravity and a lot of young faces with less experience and a greater tendency to toe the company line. Jon Stewart is something he wants, if not Stewart than someone like him. He's wanting something along the lines of Steve Hartman -- whimsical musings. The result is going to be a very different format that will more closely resemble what passes [for news] on the morning shows. Couric should worry about being used to sell a format and then being moved back to the morning shift."

9) Moonves "wants to move the focus from news to consumer information which would include
Entertainment Tonight-like segments. He's using terms like 'identity journalism' and people are rolling their eyes and remembering Tabitha Soren."