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Katie, you're on

Couric has boosted interest in evening news. Can networks cash in?

September 05, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

New York — THE new theme song that will open the "CBS Evening News" tonight is by the same composer who did the score for "Field of Dreams," so perhaps it's appropriate for Katie Couric to recall a sentiment from that movie when asked about her hopes of attracting more viewers to the third-place broadcast.

"If we build it, they will come," she said with a grin.

And after months of speculation, followed by anticipation, Couric and CBS have finally built it.

Few doubt that Couric's debut on the newscast this evening will inflate the audience in the short-term. From the first rumors that the longtime morning anchor was considering making the jump to CBS, her move has been covered with the kind of intense scrutiny and speculation usually reserved for prospective presidential candidates.

"With all the attention given to not just us, but Charlie [Gibson] and Brian [Williams], I think there's been more written about this time period in the last three months than probably in history," said CBS News President Sean McManus.

But it remains to be seen what effect Couric -- who will be the first sole female anchor of a network evening newscast -- will have on the genre, which has been plagued by steady audience erosion for several decades.

In the last year, overall viewership of the three broadcasts has ebbed amid a period of remarkable upheaval behind the anchor desks, one that appears to have finally drawn to a close with Charles Gibson's appointment to ABC's "World News" in May and Couric's arrival at CBS. By the end of the season, NBC remained in the lead, but its audience was down about 5% and ABC had dropped 9%, while CBS had edged upward -- the only newscast to do so.

Executives at all the networks say they hope to benefit from the recent wave of publicity about the new matchup in the evening. But television news analysts warn that reversing the trend in viewership is a difficult proposition, especially during a time when people increasingly seek news and information from other sources.

"I don't think it would be a surprise if the amount of ink spilled on this floated the audience upward" initially, said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS and CNN who runs NewsLab, a Washington-based nonprofit journalism training and research center. "But I don't think people's lives have changed, and the amount of time they have to spend hasn't changed."

So even as the networks gear up for a renewed competition at 6:30 p.m. this fall, another equally important showdown is playing out in a different arena: online.

In their bid to remain relevant, the newscasts are hurriedly developing ways to reach viewers throughout the day. NBC's Williams, already a veteran blogger, recently began filing a new video blog every morning. ABC's Gibson does a top-rated podcast every afternoon. And all three broadcasts regularly post video online that viewers can access on-demand, creating their own news program.

"Nobody will argue that there hasn't been fractionalization of the audience," said Jon Banner, executive producer of ABC's "World News." "That's why we are investing so heavily in the Web to take advantage of everything at our disposal to reach as many people as possible. The idea is to create, in the 'World News' brand, news that is always on."

In fact, ABC recently went so far as to drop the word "Tonight" from the name of its newscast, a nod to the fact that the program is no longer bound by its slot on the schedule.

CBS is going even further. Beginning today, viewers will be able to watch the "CBS Evening News" online at the same time that it airs on television -- the first time a network news program will be available simultaneously on the Internet and over-the-air. (NBC has offered netcast of the "Nightly News" since October, but it isn't available until 10 p.m. ET, once the broadcast has finished airing on the West Coast.)

McManus said CBS secured support from its affiliates for the simulcast after finding that Internet streams of the NCAA basketball tournament this spring did not depress the television audience. In fact, he believes this move could ultimately boost viewership of the newscast.

"I actually think if we can get some people who don't have access to TV at 6:30 to watch online, if they like what they see, maybe they will become regular viewers," he said.

Still, McManus cautioned that moving out of third place will not be easy, even with one of the country's best-known broadcasters in the anchor chair.

"I'm not going to consider this a failure if in three months or six months we're not in first place," he said. "It's no secret that the viewership for the television broadcasts is going down and it's going to be very difficult to grow that overall. That's why you have to find new revenue streams and new ways to distribute that product."

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