NEW YORK - There were times, toward the end, when Katie Couric said she felt she had “outgrown” NBC’s “Today” show, its lighter segments on occasion making her feel “more like a game-show host than a journalist.”
“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone,” Couric said in an interview, more than seven months into her run as anchor of “The CBS Evening News.”
People always say it’s good to get outside one’s comfort zone, that it helps one grow. What’s rarely mentioned is that, by definition, this tends to be uncomfortable.
Couric quickly discovered as much in leaving “Today” last year, after more than a decade at No. 1, for the prestige and precedent of solo anchoring a nightly network newscast, albeit one that puts her in the unfamiliar position of third place out of three.
Only in the last couple months, she says, has she begun to “feel more in command” and at ease.
“Evening News,” in turn, has become quicker, sharper and punchier, though that also can be attributed to last month’s arrival of seasoned veteran Rick Kaplan as executive producer in place of Rome Hartman, who had been encouraged to try a few new ideas but found viewers weren’t ready for reform.
In fact, all the heady talk of reinventing the nightly news from CBS boss Leslie Moonves that was a prelude to his hiring Couric away from NBC at a reported $15 million per year has subsided. That’s because even subtle changes can rattle the network news audience, which has been getting accustomed to Couric while she gets used to it.
“I don’t think I ever felt so uncomfortable to the point it made viewers uncomfortable. I just know internally I feel more relaxed,” said Couric, who is bringing her newscast to Chicago on Friday. “I know it sounds so self-helpy, but you do grow when you’re facing challenges, and when people are taking shots at you right and left.
“Someone told me recently that someone criticized the way I held my hands when I stood. I mean it’s just ridiculous. ... But I’ve gotten a ton of support, too, and sometimes I think it’s important to not be too consumed by this small community of TV writers and people in the business, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the public at large.”
The public, which swarmed to her debut last September, initially fueling unrealistic expectations about her prospects of quickly lifting CBS out of the cellar, is still eyeing her warily, if Nielsen ratings are to be believed.
“These things build slowly,” Couric said, noting she’s “kind of circumspect and sanguine about the whole thing.”
Season to date, Couric’s “Evening News” has averaged 7.4 million viewers, down 4 percent from a year ago, when Bob Schieffer was in the anchor chair. One ray of light for CBS is that her newscast viewership is up 6 percent among women age 18 to 49.
First-place “NBC Nightly News” with Brian Williams is down 6 percent overall, with an average of 9 million viewers. Only ABC’s “World News” with Charlie Gibson has added total viewers, up 2 percent, to 8.7 million.
“Nobody is more competitive than I am, and if I thought that at this point in time, the ratings were a reflection of the show we were putting on the air, I would be despondent,” CBS News boss Sean McManus said. “I’m not.
“I’m really not focused on the numbers right now. I fixated over them for a while. They are what they are. I do believe that over a period of years they will get better, and I remind myself, and I remind people when they ask me, that it was in Tom Brokaw’s 14th season that he became No. 1.”
The Brokaw stat comes up in a lot of conversations with folks at CBS News. McManus, Kaplan and Couric all mentioned it in separate interviews, and yet none of them seems prepared to wait that long.
“I’m not impatient (but) I will also say I despise being in third place,” McManus said. “But right now it’s a fact of life. Part of it is the lead-in (from CBS affiliates). If you look at the numbers, there’s an enormous advantage both (NBC and ABC) have. But that’s OK. It’s been like that for 15 years. That’s not an excuse, but it’s a factor.”
The thinking at CBS is that recent coverage from North Carolina when the Duke rape case was dismissed and last week from the campus of Virginia Tech will go a long way toward boosting “Evening News.”
“Is it going to have an immediate effect? Absolutely not,” McManus said. “But people need to be reassured that the person in the chair is qualified and deserves to be there. Every time she does something like this, she reinforces the fact that, yeah, she does belong there. But it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take probably longer than any of us would have hoped.”
Couric was the first network anchor to arrive on the Virginia Tech campus Monday, enabling her to attend some of the press briefings while others were still en route. Already in the air, returning from some weekend reporting in Texas, her jet was rerouted toward Blacksburg, Va., while some of her crew didn’t arrive in town until 20 minutes into her expanded one-hour newscast.
“The beauty of news viewers is once you get their trust, and once they count on you, if you don’t let them down, they’re really loath to turn on you,” Kaplan said.
Part of Kaplan’s marching orders has been to tighten up “Evening News.” There simply isn’t the time on a half-hour nightly newscast to do many of the things at which Couric excelled in the multihour format of “Today.”
“It’s been sort of a group consensus that we can’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, that there are certain things this audience wants to hear and needs to hear every night, and that we have to really focus on the news of the day,” Couric said.
That said, she and Kaplan bristle at the claims of some critics that Couric’s “Evening News” is feature-heavy. With news and information available from so many sources throughout the day, they point out that by dinnertime it’s incumbent on them to advance daily news with what once might have been considered follow-up stories.
“All these terms have to be re-examined and redefined, especially in the changing media landscape,” Couric said.
Meanwhile, Couric also has withstood criticism - some of it sexist, in McManus’ view - and the attentions of the gossip columns and supermarket tabloids, whose scrutiny reaches beyond the newscast to her personal life.
Couric knows she has a relationship with viewers others in her position traditionally have not shared. She was their breakfast companion for years. They have watched her have two children and lose a husband and a sister.
“People not only felt they got to know me, but did in fact get to know me and so, as a result, they got more invested in my life than they might be someone who just delivers the news,” she said, uncertain whether it helps or hurts her overall in this new, more challenging role.
“If she wanted to glide, she could have stayed at the `Today’ show and been No. 1, no big deal,” Kaplan said.
“She took the courageous route to see what she could do to make life a little more interesting. So maybe life is a little more interesting than she wanted it to be, but you stay young and grow through challenges like this.”
She may never feel like a game-show host again.