Katie’s gone, but as the late, great Richard Manuel used to sing with the Band, Katie’s been gone for such a long time now. Ever since she took over the CBS Evening News almost five years ago, everybody has been predicting her imminent departure. She was hired to do the completely impossible: breathe new life into the chain-smoking dinosaur that is the network evening news, which coughs up a little blood in your living room every night at 6:30. It was obvious right away that Couric couldn’t save the format, but she didn’t do anything wrong. It was the job that was screwed up.
Watching the evening news in 2011 is a strange time-travel experience. The CBS Evening News, ABC World News and NBC Nightly News haven’t changed their style over the decades, still going for that old-fashioned mix of voice-of-authority pomp and feel-good fluff. The difference is that people aren’t watching. The news anchors are fighting over a drastically shrinking audience, mostly composed of elderly viewers who can’t reach the remote.
This article appears in the April 28, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now.
You’d think if anyone could charm America into caring about the evening news, it would be Katie Couric, the Tri Delt from Virginia who became America’s sweetheart on the Today show. But her ratings have been dismal — she comes in last place every week. In the first week of March, she drew 6 million viewers, while Diane Sawyer at ABC got 8.5 million and NBC’s Brian Williams got 9.3 million.
But what was Couric supposed to do? The network news doesn’t break any big stories or add depth, insight or intelligence. Those are qualities that have always been missing from the format, which is another reason folks have tuned out. The producers have chosen to respond to the challenges by not responding at all. It’s like the extra scene on the Anchorman DVD where Fred Willard says, “Times are changing,” and Will Ferrell responds, “I don’t think they are.”
The whole idea of a network anchor is a solemn type who addresses the entire nation in a soothing baritone, like Dan Rather saying “Courage,” but without the audience it just dissolves into a camp routine. When The Daily Show hit the airwaves, it always began with a voice-over guy announcing, “The most important television program … ever!” It became such an old joke that The Daily Show ditched it — yet the network news still comes on with that same sense of self-importance, which in today’s world just seems silly.
You can see that in Couric’s competition. Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams really do think they’re hosting the most important television program ever. Sawyer makes everything she says sound urgent and noble, fraught with feeling, even when she looks embarrassed at what they give her to read. Williams commands the role better, since he’s absolutely impossible to embarrass. That’s the main reason his show beats the others. He loves this job — just watch the way his eyebrows quiver when he introduces one of his “Making a Difference” reports.
When CBS hired Katie Couric away from the Today show, it looked like a sign that they knew the rules had changed, and they were determined to adapt. Couric really tried to inject some life into the one-note role, bringing some of her own personality and intelligence to it. She had deceptively tough interviewing skills as well, as she showed with Sarah Palin when she basically handed the governor of Alaska some rope and a chair and pointed to the roof beam. But Couric is too much of a modern TV star to look comfortable in such an archaic role. The main job requirement for a network-news anchor is thinking it’s the only important job in the world. This is a field where solemn gravitas isn’t a drawback; it’s the whole point. So who could blame Couric if she moves to a daytime chat show, with its rabid and loyal fans, and becomes the next Oprah?
Couric has a surprising amount in common with that other mighty K.C. from the Nineties, Kurt Cobain. They both got famous in 1991. They had the same Dennis the Menace bob, except that Katie’s cost more than Kurt’s monthly drug budget. They redefined their jobs, to the point where everybody who comes afterward still gets compared to them. They both got stuck with the unwelcome task of salvaging a moribund breed of corporate entertainment. And neither one really looked all that surprised when it didn’t work.