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CBS executives deny it, but there’s a growing feeling within the network that Katie Couric is an expensive, unfixable mistake.


So unfixable that Couric - the first woman to anchor a network nightly newscast solo - may leave “CBS Evening News,” probably after the 2008 presidential elections, to assume another role at the network, CBS sources say.


Despite her A-list celebrity, her $15 million salary, and a promotional blitz worthy of a Super Bowl, the former star of NBC’s “Today” has failed to move the Nielsen needle on No. 3 “Evening News” since her debut seven months ago.


In a bottom-line business like television, that’s a cardinal sin. Already-low morale in the news division is dropping, says a veteran correspondent there.


“It’s a disaster. Everybody knows it’s not working. CBS may not cut her loose, but I guarantee you, somebody’s thinking about it. We’re all hunkered down, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”


Seven correspondents, producers and executives at CBS and other networks interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity, given the sensitive nature of the Couric situation.


Couric and CBS were a bad fit from the start.


“From the moment she walked in here, she held herself above everybody else,” says a CBS staffer. “We had to live up to her standards. ... CBS has never dealt in this realm of celebrity before.”


Media experts predict Couric’s ratings won’t improve anytime soon, given that news viewers tend to be older and averse to change.


Couric, 50, draws fewer viewers than did avuncular “interim” anchor Bob Schieffer, 20 years her senior. Much of the feature-oriented format she debuted with is gone, as is her first executive producer, Rome Hartman.


“The broadcast is an abject failure, by any measure,” says Rich Hanley, director of graduate programs at the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University.


“They gambled that viewers wanted a softer, less-dramatic presentation of the news, and they lost. It’s not fair to blame Couric for everything, but she’s certainly the centerpiece and deserves a fair share.”


“CBS Evening News” this season averages 7.319 million total viewers, down 5 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research.


Couric’s viewership has dropped nearly 30 percent since her Sept. 5 premiere week, when she averaged an inflated 10.2 million viewers and led CBS News to its first Nielsen win since June 2001.


In separate interviews, CBS News president Sean McManus and “Evening News” executive producer Rick Kaplan vehemently deny that Couric’s future as anchor of the broadcast is in peril.


Couric “is the current anchor and the anchor of the future,” McManus says. “Everyone at the network, from my boss (CBS Corp. president and chief executive Leslie Moonves) on down, is 100 percent behind her.”


“Katie is the anchor until she decides to ride off into the sunset and do something else,” says Kaplan, named e.p. March 8. “There is no one, no one, wringing their hands around here.”


Others say CBS is in denial. “It’s over. The only one who doesn’t know it is CBS,” says an executive at a rival network.


To bolster its argument, CBS points to Couric’s attracting 6 percent more 18-to-49-year-old women than a year ago, while ABC and NBC are down sharply in those categories.


“NBC Nightly News,” with Brian Williams, is No. 1 this season with an average of 9.004 million total viewers (down 6 percent). Charlie Gibson’s ABC World News has 8.739 million (up 2 percent).


Some predicted that Couric was destined to fail in her new position.


For starters, the 6:30 p.m. news and “Today” call for totally different skill sets. And those sets are not easily transferrable.


Couric’s effervescent personality and expertise with live interviews and ad-libs were perfect for morning TV, particularly over a leisurely two hours.


On a 30-minute evening newscast, however, what’s required is the ability to read the TelePrompTer and not display too much emotion.


“I guess the evening news isn’t ready for the morning news,” quips Robert Lichter, president of Washington’s Center for Media and Public Affairs.


Or, in the words of an NBC producer, “it’s like asking a centerfielder to pitch. It’s the same game, but requires totally different skills.”


Contrary to popular opinion, gender is not an issue in the Couric situation, says Mediaweek.com analyst Marc Berman. “I give CBS a lot of credit for picking a woman. They just didn’t pick the right woman.”


Jennifer Pozner, executive director of New York’s Women in Media & News, an educational and advocacy group, labels it “an infotainment issue.”


“Couric came from `Today,’ where bits of hard news are interspersed with diet tips and fall fashions.” Had CBS hired Today coanchor Matt Lauer, the results would have been the same, Pozner says.


“Neither of them has the journalistic chops for the job. It’s absolutely ridiculous that CBS wouldn’t have predicted this.”


Many say CBS, long the home to the most traditional hard-news broadcast of the Big 3, alienated its core viewers by making too many changes too quickly.


Network news viewers, whose median age is about 60, are accustomed to a straight-ahead roundup of the day’s most important stories.


“They’re middle-aged white guys saying, `Give me news from a middle-aged white guy,’ ” says Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications.


No surprise, then, that ABC’s Gibson, 64, is now battling for first place with NBC’s Williams, who turns 48 next month.


Connie Chung, 60, the last woman to anchor a network newscast, says Couric hasn’t been in the chair long enough to get a fair shake.


“Six months? Good Lord, that’s a blink of the CBS eye,” says Chung, whose forced on-air partnership with CBS Evening News’ Dan Rather lasted two excruciating years, until 1995.


“Katie should be given as much time as it takes. ... I’m flabbergasted that anyone would sound some sort of death knell now.”


Network-news analyst Andrew Tyndall agrees. “Evening News” “is absolutely salvageable,” he says. The key will be Couric’s learning to relax into her role as an evening anchor.


That won’t be easy, given the pressure of impossibly high expectations. Many say Couric was painted as a white knight brought in to resurrect the once-mighty “Evening News.”


“She’s trying too hard,” Tyndall says. “She’s overthinking her role. She’s got to stand back. It’s a very Zen problem. To be the face of `Evening News,’ she’s got to be self-effacing.”


Self-effacing isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind with Couric. She arrived at CBS with her own group of producers, bookers and assistants, which didn’t sit well with the staff.


“She sees herself as a star and thinks the whole news department is here to serve her,” says a longtime CBS correspondent.


Former anchors Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Schieffer “saw themselves as leaders of the journalistic team,” the correspondent says. “We felt we were part of something bigger than we were.”


That Couric, a widow with two young daughters, seems to be a magnet for bad personal publicity exacerbates newsroom anxiety over CBS’s image and credibility.


Recently, the tabloids have been in a frenzy reporting that Couric’s new boyfriend is 17 years her junior.


“Having an anchor humiliated in the tabloids detracts from the nature of news itself,” says Quinnipiac’s Hanley. Such coverage “is part of the whole matrix of things that have gone wrong at CBS.”


Couric took another P.R. hit recently when it was revealed that her CBS blog, “Katie Couric’s Notebook,” was written by a producer. The ghostwriting became public only when CBS fired the producer for plagiarism.


Bob Steele, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, labels it “professionally and ethically deceptive” for someone to claim authorship of a piece if others contributed to the work.


“At the very least, this incident should be a loud warning bell for Couric and CBS,” he says. Along with damaging credibility, using a ghostwriter gives less control of the material to the journalist who’s responsible for it.


Given CBS’s desire to brand Couric on every conceivable platform, “you have an individual who’s spread too thin,” in Steele’s view. “She’s exceptionally vulnerable.”


If anything, that vulnerability serves to make the judgments of her work harsher. When Couric interviewed Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards and his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, March 25 on 60 Minutes, she was criticized for being too hard on them.


Prior to that, she was accused of being too soft. The constant critical scrutiny seems to be taking a toll on a woman accustomed to positive treatment in the media.


Nobody was more positive about Couric than CBS boss Moonves, the consummate showman, but observers agree that he oversold her - and that it was a major mistake.


By introducing a new (female) anchor and a softer, magazinelike format at the same time, CBS “scared people off,” says an NBC producer. He would have waited six months before tinkering with the content, he says.


One of the early casualties was “Free Speech,” a segment in which ordinary people as well as celebrities sounded off on various issues.


For many CBS News staffers, the nadir was a “Free Speech” segment Oct. 2, the day five Amish schoolgirls were murdered in Lancaster County.


The father of a child killed in Colorado’s Columbine High School massacre in 1999 blamed the Amish tragedy, in part, on the teaching of evolution in public schools and on abortion.


Despite CBS’s avowed intention to include all viewpoints in “Free Speech,” the segment caused an uproar in the newsroom, according to CBS insiders.


“There’s a difference between free speech and responsible speech,” an embarrassed correspondent says.


It was another significant misstep in Couric’s uphill climb to legitimacy, a trek that seems to grow steeper by the day.

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