Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Evening News


SOME years back, Jack Smith, my friend and colleague at the Los Angeles Times, described his bout with a particularly virulent flu bug.

As his temperature climbed and he became delirious, he believed he saw the face of God.
It was kind and round, accented with bushy eyebrows and a thick mustache. It radiated understanding and reassurance.

It wasn't until the fever began to break that Jack realized he was watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.

To some, Cronkite was God. To me, it was more like having the news delivered by your favorite grandfather. He was wise and warm, and it was as though we sat on his lap and played with his pocket watch as he spoke. And in the end of his newscasts, the anchor they called “the most trusted man in America” left us with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, truth and justice might triumph.

Cronkite retired in 1981 and, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings notwithstanding, things just haven't been the same in Television Land. Network news ratings, while still healthy, have been in steady decline. Like it or not, television (and newspapers for that matter) are in a death struggle with cable, blogs, Web sites and whatever other technology du jour is popular.

Network news isn't exactly cutting edge. The formats are about the same they were in Cronkite's day. Unfortunately, the personalities aren't.

Over at NBC, we have Brian Williams whose made-for-TV good looks can't cover up a lack of charisma while a sense of foreboding and melancholy permeate his broadcasts.

ABC's situation is the stuff of Shakespearian tragedies. The popular Peter Jennings dies of lung cancer after he reportedly resumes smoking after 9/11. He is replaced with Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Woodruff is badly injured in Iraq. Vargas, about to go on maternity leave, abruptly resigns amid declining ratings. Out of these ashes rises Charles Gibson, a proper Princetonian whom the older demographic can relate to.

Which brings us to Katie Couric. CBS has not only elevated Katie to the anchor chair, she spent the last week appearing on almost every network show this side of “Survivor.”
There was Katie with her own prime-time special. There was Katie on “60 Minutes” As one wag remarked, maybe CBS stands for the Couric Broadcasting Network.

Her debut was the most anticipated and covered event since the unveiling of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' baby Suri, which not coincidently was part of Katie's first newscast.
And it worked. Ratings were through the roof. But will it last?

This is not your father's evening news. According to Howard Kurtz, CBS has decided that by the time Katie comes onto their screen, the viewers will know the major stories. Therefore, they intend to work around the edges of the news.
This is either “in depth”' or a happy talk gimmick, depending on your point of view. So far, the presentation seems soft. But then again, that's the brand of soap that CBS is selling.

And speaking of gimmicks, let's hope the “free speech” segment at the end of the broadcast where professional blowhards like Rush Limbaugh can vent will be axed and soon.
And let's also hope critics will stop writing about what Katie is wearing and focus and what she is saying.

To me, Katie Couric has been a kind of journalistic Doris Day: neat, pretty and perky, but can she do MacBeth?

If she doesn't work out, there's always Rosie O'Donnell.
Robert Rector is a former editor with the Pasadena Star-News and Los Angeles Times.

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