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Couric In An Unfamiliar Place -- 3rd

October 11, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Five weeks into her tenure at the "CBS Evening News," Katie Couric's broadcast continues to slip in the ratings, falling into third place last week for the second week in a row.

With an average of 7.04 million viewers, Couric's audience last week was the smallest she'd had since taking over the evening news anchor desk, and it's lower than the number that tuned in for her predecessor Bob Schieffer's last week on the air in late August, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Meanwhile, the Brian Williams-led "NBC Nightly News" appears to be regaining its first-place standing, attracting an average of 8.54 million viewers last week and beating out the competition for the third week in a row. ABC anchor Charles Gibson's "World News" took second place again, with almost 7.98 million viewers.

CBS News executives emphasized that Couric's newscast has brought in more people than the broadcast did at this time last year -- particularly younger viewers -- while both NBC and ABC have smaller audiences compared with then. CBS drew fewer 25- to 54-year-olds last week than its competitors, but the newscast did see a spike of 19% in that demographic, which advertisers target on television news, compared with the same week a year ago.

"In my mind, as long as that trend line continues the way it is, I'm satisfied that we're making the kind of progress I want," said CBS News President Sean McManus. "Who did the best week-to-week is of less concern to me than long-term growth."

McManus said that CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves is "very pleased" with the newscast's performance, adding that the network chief's only suggestions have been cosmetic ones.

"He thinks we're accomplishing exactly what we want to be," McManus said.

But the falloff of the former "Today" show anchor's audience since her debut has provoked a strong sense of unease internally, according to newsroom employees. Many are alarmed that the program isn't faring better, especially after a massive marketing push this summer that included radio spots and bus ads.

"You've got to ask the question whether CBS was wise to spend all that energy on publicity and promotion when they had a new product," said network news analyst Andrew Tyndall. "You can't retool a newscast like that and get it right from Day One."

Some of the staff have privately expressed concerns about changes to the broadcast, particularly a segment called "Free Speech," a platform for opinions from around the country.

Last week, executive producer Rome Hartman received strong protests from the newsroom after airing a commentary by Brian Rohrbough, the father of a student slain at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999. In addressing recent school shootings in Colorado and Pennsylvania, Rohrbough said the public schools have taught students in a "moral vacuum" by emphasizing evolution and keeping religion out of the classroom.

Critics complained the opinion piece was not relevant to the current tragedies, especially since the most recent shooting happened at an Amish school.

Hartman, who said he was surprised by the topic Rohrbough chose to address, said he nevertheless didn't believe it would have been "in keeping with the spirit of the segment" to ask him to change the piece.

The executive producer called the feedback from newsroom employees "a very healthy conversation." Although the intense scrutiny of the broadcast's performance is "a little bit distracting" for staffers, Hartman said, the mood internally was upbeat. "It's a little frustrating that people treat what is our beginning as if it was some kind of end. These things take a long time to change."

In the last month, longtime leader NBC has steadily regained its advantage over the other two newscasts. "Nightly News" executive producer John Reiss said, "We knew there would be a lot of sampling in the early days, and it stood to reason that a disproportionate amount would come from us." He noted that many NBC viewers were likely already Couric fans. "I think they're coming back to us, and we're very gratified."

For its part, ABC attracted the most 25- to 54-year-old women in the last month, a demographic many expected would flock to Couric.

"This thing has not completely shaken itself out yet," said "World News" executive producer Jon Banner. "We have a lot of work to do, and we're not going to be satisfied until we're No. 1."

matea.gold@latimes.com

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