May 2008

by Ron Steinman

Wake up on any given day and you might see the face of Katie Couric on the morning TV shows, on the Internet and in your newspaper. Then look in the evening at the pop entertainment shows and there again you could see Ms. Couric, who has unintentionally become the face of CBS News, thus of the CBS network itself. Stare at her face. Read whatever you want into it, but mostly you might see sadness, confusion and doom. There is enough evidence in the press that CBS recently had meetings about her future with the network. Does she stay or does she go and if she goes, when?

It is apparent that Lester Moonves, the head of CBS, made a $75 million mistake when he hired her away from the Today Show to anchor the CBS Evening News. The glaring error manifests itself in severe criticism from professionals, but more importantly in her low ratings, meaning how the public, her real critics, perceives her presence on what is ostensibly her show. Nothing her producers tried worked – from the show being too soft, to having her interview major figures with silly questions that she obviously thought her audience sought answers to, to a seeming lack of depth in her on-air presence, thus her presentation.

In a word, Katie Couric has no gravitas, something no one cared about in her 15 years on Today. She never will. That is not who she is. Though she thought she could carry the evening news as the first full-time female anchor, it did not happen. It seems clear that she will have a new role at CBS or she will be gone from the network, either later this year or by the time of the inauguration next year. From all accounts, CBS does not have an alternate plan for who will replace her. Its bench is weak, something that affects all aging teams, whether in sports or elsewhere, and news today is akin to sports.

The three major TV networks are in trouble. Audiences for news are slipping badly. Except for the opening segment on each broadcast, features with a try-at-a-hard-news twist dominate those shows. By the time people sit down to watch in the early evening, they probably know the news of the day from the Internet, whether on their PDA, a laptop, a cell phone or a PC at work or school.

The latest rumors have CBS News in talks with CNN to get at least some of its news from an outside source other than its own bureaus. Of course, CBS and CNN deny this is true. However, true or not, it is a story with legs. The possibility of this happening is not new. The denials are old. Should we care if this happens? Yes, we should. If true, we can understand that CBS wants to save money. However, we do not believe it should save money at the expense of once-superior standards developed over many years. The cost of gathering news is rising. Every network is closing news bureaus with regularity. CBS News is part of the larger business of CBS. Worse, the entertainment divisions of the three original TV networks are also fast losing audience. So where does a business such as CBS turn? It apparently looks to outsourcing, the new standard for many American businesses. As a professional and a consumer of news, I may not like it or accept what is happening. However, it is real and impossible to stop, as if it is a life spinning out of control. I want to believe that news is immune to outsourcing. Apparently this is not so, especially when CBS, venerable, trusted and a standard bearer since the days of Edward R. Murrow, now seemingly is turning to an organization other than itself to gather its news. Is outsourcing, at least as I describe it, the end of TV news, as we know it? Will the fate for CBS News' audience be the hype, and thus the tedium, of CNN's label of "just in," or "breaking news," for every fresh story that crosses an editor's desk?

There are still those of us who remember the days of the many wire services: INS, UP, AP, and Reuters. In time INS and UP joined to become UPI. These were necessary then and still are today -- real services providing information to newspapers, magazines and broadcast entities they might otherwise not have had available. The wire services are really syndicates necessary to rounded journalism – no organization can be everywhere to cover every story -- and along with photo agencies and video providers from around the world they offer raw material to the Web, to newscasts and roundups in newspapers and magazines to help give a complete picture to its audiences. These syndicates provide raw material without making a judgment about what their offerings mean. The broadcast or print outlet using the written word, photos or video footage then properly parse the information and use what they need according to their own standards and audience.

At one time, CBS News was a formidable news-gathering machine. It is easy to see it is already in decline, despite a recent pep talk by Lester Moonves to those in his news division. Maybe that is a subtle harbinger of things to come. Beware of the king bearing gifts, even if only in words. All the talk about the troubles at CBS, none of it any good, has to hurt the morale and bog down an already unsteady ship. Will the rumors swirling around CBS News have a similar effect on NBC News and ABC News? Is it time to superimpose R.I.P. over the CBS eye? Is what is happening at CBS a precursor to the end of TV news, as we know it? There are those who believe the half-hour network news shows are already dead. Others wish those shows to falter even more, and to finally disappear. In advance of that happening, I have the black bunting out, trimmed and pressed and I am preparing to mourn.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.