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NBC, CBS shuffle news executives, just when newscasts seem stable

Charlie McCollum
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

Just when it looked as if the networks' nightly newscasts had returned to a measure of stability and calm, turmoil is back.

In less than a week, the executive producers of both "The NBC Nightly News" and "The CBS Evening News" were shown the door after relatively brief stints. New bosses were brought in. At the same time, "Nightly News" - long the evening news ratings champ - was trying to shake off the impact of ABC's "World News" finishing first in the February sweeps, for the first time since the mid-1990s.

The departure of John Reiss, who had run "Nightly News" since Brian Williams took over as anchor from Tom Brokaw two years ago, doesn't have as much to do with the ABC victory as it might seem. Although he was highly regarded as a journalist - the newscast has won almost every major broadcast journalism award during his tenure - Reiss reportedly never clicked with Williams, and that led to some internal disagreements over the direction of the show.

His replacement - NBC News vice president Alexandra Wallace, who has zoomed up the corporate ladder - is closer to Williams and (perhaps a bit foolishly) already has publicly promised that "Nightly News" will retake its No. 1 spot quickly. (It doesn't have that much ground to make up: "World News" won the February war by just 110,000 viewers, 9.68 million to 9.57 million.)

The change at "The CBS Evening News" is a much more profound shift.

Although the top brass at CBS repeatedly had said it would show patience with new anchor Katie Couric and a new format for the newscast that was put into place in September, the ratings for "Evening News" forced it to move, and move quickly. After Couric's first two weeks in the anchor's chair, viewership slid rather dramatically: The "Evening News" is now a weak third in the ratings (7.59 million in February), behind where it was when Bob Schieffer was anchor last year. What happened is that CBS executives found it easier to talk about changing the fundamental nature of the evening newscast than to change it.

Executive producer Rome Hartman tried to make the newscast stand apart from the others and to play to Couric's strengths as a personality and an interviewer, but many of the format changes didn't work, and the show quickly got a reputation, a bit unjustified, for ignoring hard news in favor of soft-focus features. When changes were made to the changes, Couric - who had been hired away from NBC last year for $15 million - came off looking uncertain and ill-at-ease.

Hartman is being replaced by Rick Kaplan, a veteran broadcast journalist who has put in time at CBS, ABC, CNN and MSNBC. He reportedly arrives with Couric's blessing - hard to believe anyone would get the job without her blessing - and the mandate to refocus the "Evening News" once again. (He also comes with some baggage, including feuds with Lou Dobbs at CNN and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC.)

In the midst of all this turmoil, ABC ends up looking like the fat and happy winner. It ended up with right guy in the anchor's chair - Charles Gibson, who projects a comfortable appeal not unlike Schieffer's - and it's back on top, at least temporarily.

But stay tuned. Given the uncertainty of broadcast news these days, all that could change by, say, the May sweeps.

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