Couric is making history, and it’s about time. Half a century since network news became an institution, we’ll finally have a woman as solo anchor of a nightly network newscast — a powerful, public position that speaks volumes about gender equality. When she takes over in September, Couric will be on an equal footing with two solo male anchors at the other networks, now that ABC has decided to replace Elizabeth Vargas with Charles Gibson.
Couric’s success, if she does succeed, will be due in part to those women who paid their dues for decades, including Barbara Walters, who coanchored at ABC in the 1970s, and Connie Chung, who shared the anchor desk at CBS a decade ago. Both were basically set up to fail by being teamed with established male anchors — Walters with Harry Reasoner and Chung with Dan Rather — who visibly resented their presence.
Couric won’t have that problem. And she’s bound to get a better reception than Lesley Stahl did in 1974 when she got the chance to be CBS’ first woman coanchor on election night. In her book, “Reporting Live,” Stahl remembers visiting the set before the broadcast and noticing that each chair had a name card. Cronkite. Rather. Mudd. Wallace. And then there was the card for her chair, which read simply, “Female.”
With a five-year contract, a multimillion dollar salary and the title of managing editor, Couric will be in a strong position to reshape the “Evening News,” which is exactly what the network wants. CBS President Les Moonves said he wasn’t looking for a “voice of God” anchor, and by golly, he didn’t hire one. The newscast has been dead last in the ratings for more than 10 years, but it’s shown some life under interim anchor Bob Schieffer. Couric’s new bosses are counting on her to build a bigger audience that includes more women and younger viewers.
The reason, simply put, is money. Advertisers covet younger viewers because they spend more. With Couric at the helm, NBC’s “Today” had the youngest audience of the three morning news programs. At 49, Couric is 20 years younger than Schieffer, and while she may not appeal to Gen-Xers who rarely watch network news, she could bring back younger baby boomers and lower the average age of the evening news audience, which now hovers around 60.
Advertisers also pay more to reach women because they make most decisions about what to buy. But will women watch other women deliver the news? They certainly do on the local news. According to research by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, women now hold 57 percent of all TV anchor positions. Stations like ABC affiliate WPBF in Palm Beach, Florida, where three women anchor the main nightly newscasts, have seen their ratings climb.
Couric’s biggest challenge will be making a smooth transition from morning television, with its cooking segments, celebrity interviews and silly chitchat, to the more sober evening newscast. Can she do it? Why not? Tom Brokaw did. When he took over NBC’s “Nightly News” in 1983, some critics thought he was a good-looking lightweight. Never mind that he’d been a White House correspondent, he just didn’t seem seasoned enough. He lacked, well, gravitas. Sound familiar? Couric covered the Pentagon before moving to “Today,” where she’s interviewed politicians and world leaders with intelligence and skill. She is not, as one letter-writer sniped to New York’s Daily News, merely “gifted at applying hair spray.”
Yes, she’s easy to look at. So is NBC’s Brian Williams. Does anyone really think he’s anchoring the nightly news only because of his journalistic skill? To succeed, a TV anchor has to connect with viewers on a personal level. Couric has that part of the job down pat, and it’s not a “girl thing.” Remember good old “avuncular” Walter Cronkite? Viewers liked Uncle Walter as a news anchor; he had substance, but he also had warmth. Few remembered that he once cohosted the “CBS Morning Show” with a puppet named Charlemagne.
Couric’s comfort level with live television makes her a good fit for the question-and-answer format Schieffer has adopted. Her years of experience on a feature-oriented program won’t be wasted on an evening newscast that already spends more time on longer explainers than on headline summaries.
But her impact won’t be confined to a half-hour on television. What Couric does online may be even more important to the future of network news. That’s where CBS really hopes to lure a younger audience, and where Couric’s personal appeal could pay off first. She’s expected to have a daily presence on cbsnews.com, although the precise form and content haven’t been decided. She may not fit the model of news anchors past — imagine Dan Rather blogging — and that could be one of the best possible reasons to give her the job.
Originally published by American Journalism Review, June 2006