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Katie Couric on the hustings

The new CBS anchor goes city to city to chat with folks as the network tries to stir up sizzle for her debut.

July 12, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The campaign has already begun.

Nearly two months before Katie Couric makes her debut on the "CBS Evening News," the 49-year-old broadcaster is hopscotching the country on a six-city "Eye on America" tour, attending town hall meetings aimed at eliciting local residents' viewpoints on the news. The trip, which takes her to Minneapolis today, is part of a summer-long strategy by CBS to buttress Couric's credentials and build anticipation for her arrival at the anchor desk on Sept. 5.

In preparation, the newscast is getting a complete makeover. The decade-old set at CBS News' West 57th Street headquarters has been demolished, and outgoing anchor Bob Schieffer is broadcasting from an adjacent studio while a new one is being erected. New theme music and graphics are in the works as well.

The changes won't just be aesthetic. Couric and her producers are in the midst of extensive discussions about how they want to reshape the third-place broadcast, a progress they hope will be informed by this week's forums.

"I think Katie wants to hear about elements that people think might be missing in the nightly newscast," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News. "The main thing she has stressed is that she wants the news to be presented in a very accessible, intelligent way."

After 15 years as co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show, Couric's ascension to the evening news anchor desk has already drawn skepticism from some critics who question whether she can make the transition to a more staid format -- a notion that the network is challenging head-on in a carefully calibrated promotional campaign.

The first four 15- and 20-second spots, which began airing on CBS several weeks ago, feature Schieffer offering his imprimatur of his successor.

"I've been reporting the news for a long time, so I think I know a little about journalism," the 69-year-old anchor says in one ad. "Come September, I'll be back in Washington on my regular beat. But the anchor chair will be in good hands, because my friend Katie Couric will be here. Just watch."

CBS officials hope that spotlighting the support of Schieffer, who will continue to provide analysis on the newscast, will go a long way toward assuaging concerns of longtime viewers who are wary of the anchor transition.

The widespread planning already underway for Couric's arrival signals the network's intent to make the most of the anchor change, casting it as the beginning of a new era for CBS News after a tumultuous two years.

"It's very, very exciting to figuratively and literally have a brand-new evening news," McManus said.

That said, while producers are developing several new elements that haven't been used before on an evening newscast, McManus stressed that "the mix will stay primarily the same."

"It's going to be an evolution, not a revolution," Couric told reporters in Clearwater, Fla., on Monday before the town hall meeting, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "We're going to make some changes. But we're not going to alter it so radically that people are going to be like, 'Oh my God, what is this?' "

Executive producer Rome Hartman, who is traveling with Couric this week, said that Couric is interested in a broadcast that puts complicated stories into context for viewers.

"It's about figuring out how to do stories in a way that are valuable and meaningful and relevant to people," he said. "It's easy to be a little bit isolated. We don't want to do stories for each other."

The town hall meetings were designed to spur ideas about how to approach stories in different ways, not to dictate the topics the broadcast will cover, Hartman said. The first forum, held Monday afternoon in Tampa, Fla., was a wide-ranging, two-hour conversation with about 85 people, he said. (Participants were selected by local station officials after submitting requests to attend.)

"I was really struck by how people kept saying that they want depth and they want serious journalism," Hartman said, adding that several attendees cited the recent tensions with North Korea as an example of a subject for which they wanted more background. "They want us to give them more to chew on, in a way."

The forums -- which are also being held in Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco -- have been compared to the "listening tour" that helped former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton win over New York residents in 2000 and secure her U.S. Senate seat. (Couric's personal publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, helped organize Clinton's trips when he worked for the New York state Democratic Party. But he said that Couric's cross-country tour was "absolutely her idea.")

CBS officials have insisted that the local visits -- in which the new anchor, whose husband died of colon cancer, is also raising money for local cancer charities -- are not part of a promotional effort and have barred outside media from the town hall meetings.

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