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At CBS, it's a feeling of good news again

The 'Evening' show has gained viewers, and many credit stand-in anchor Bob Schieffer.

January 16, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A year ago, the mood in the West 57th Street headquarters of CBS News was bleak.

An independent panel had just issued a scathing report that blamed the network for "fundamental deficiencies" in rushing to air a piece that raised questions about President Bush's military service -- a story that CBS News ultimately had to admit was based on unverified documents. In the wake of the controversy, four staffers were forced out and anchor Dan Rather, who had reported the story on "60 Minutes Wednesday," retired from "CBS Evening News."

The crisis deeply shook network employees. When veteran Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer took over as interim anchor of the evening broadcast in March, he recalled, "It's all people were talking about, it's the only thing people were thinking about."

But there are some signs that CBS News may be shaking off the depression that had hung over it since the controversial story about Bush aired in September 2004. The emerging confidence in the newsroom illustrates how quickly fortunes and moods can change in a fast-paced media environment -- even within news organizations that have suffered blistering public critique.

Whether the optimism is premature, or misplaced, remains to be seen. Much of the improved morale stems from changes at the flagship broadcast, the once-top-ranked "CBS Evening News," which has lagged its competition at NBC and ABC in recent years. The newscast remains in third place this season, but it is the only broadcast to have gained viewers since last year, albeit by an increase of 3%.

Network employees have seized on the slim ratings increase as a welcome sign of larger positive change, especially when coupled with the recent appointments of two energetic executives -- CBS News President Sean McManus and Rome Hartman, the new executive producer of "CBS Evening News." Both intensely competitive, McManus and Hartman have stressed that they are determined to restore the news division's luster and regain its top standing.

"The team at the top has real belief in CBS News, and people are taking a lot of comfort in that," said the network's chief White House correspondent, John Roberts. "A lot of people weren't quite sure whether CBS News was so deeply wounded that it wouldn't be able to come back. I think those anxieties have disappeared."

Some of that is due not only to a reinvigoration of the news division but a new clarity about its mission. After a period of experimentation in which network chairman Les Moonves and CBS executives contemplated rethinking the entire format of the evening news, the network has quietly decided for now to simply build on the existing newscast, reaffirming a commitment to delivering a traditional, hard-news program.

"We have an evening news that works, and my job is to try to make it work better," said Hartman, who took over the newscast Jan. 9.

Added Schieffer: "We're not going to change the look of the broadcast very much. This is very much going back to basics, and the basics are to find the news that's most important and tell people about it in ways they can understand."

Courting Couric

Meanwhile, CBS' courting of "Today" co-anchor Katie Couric to take over the helm of the newscast when her contract at NBC is up in May has bolstered the spirits of many in the newsroom, who view it as a sign that CBS officials are serious about investing in the news division.

"When we start going after the big money players on the other teams, we're really saying what a baseball team says when it goes after the big salaried players," said Schieffer, who added that he hopes Couric will take the job. "We're saying, 'We're trying to win the World Series.'

"I think we've come a tremendous distance here. We had been beaten about the heads and shoulders so badly for so long there that people were pretty quiet about the office. People are talking again. They're having more fun, and they're smiling more."

The atmosphere is starkly different than just last fall, when the newsroom swirled with anxiety as staffers tried to decipher what changes were afoot.

Moonves, having declared that viewers no longer wanted a "voice of God" anchor, had asked news executives to develop a wholesale makeover of the evening news. Many editorial employees feared that the CBS chief was trying to turn the venerable newscast into more of an entertainment show, especially after he was quoted in the New York Times Magazine suggesting, half in jest, that producers should look to a British program that features women delivering the news in lingerie.

Andrew Heyward, then president of the news division, put together a series of pilot newscasts for Moonves that stressed a "60 Minutes"-style of in-depth storytelling. He and other news executives also suggested adding more on-screen graphics and features that took viewers behind the scenes.

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