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Anchoring the brand

September 05, 2006

TAKING A SEAT IN THE ANCHOR'S chair may be the last thing Katie Couric does each day for the "CBS Evening News." The network is getting as much as it can for the $15-million salary it's reportedly paying Couric, who makes her debut tonight. In addition to being the dominant face and voice of CBS' nightly news program on television and radio, she'll be responsible for a "Couric & Company" blog, a daily interview session offered exclusively on the Web, a video clip alerting viewers about the stories likely to be covered that evening and an e-mail version of the clip. Oh, and the news broadcast will be carried live on the Web too.

This all-Katie-all-the-time routine is emblematic of what it means today to be a network news anchor. In the last two years, CBS, NBC and ABC have replaced venerable anchors with a younger generation of on-air readers. Members of this new breed moved in short order to expand their roles online, with blogs and other material exclusive to the Web.

If anything, though, the anchors are just playing catch-up. With viewership dropping steadily over the years, the Big Three networks' news divisions have been pushing their products onto other screens -- on computers, mobile phones and other portable devices. ABC, for example, started transmitting "World News Tonight" online five years ago, then offered segments of the show on demand and later provided clips exclusively to the Web. But with the exception of a daily column that the late Peter Jennings wrote for the Web a few years ago, the previous generation of anchors didn't establish much of a presence online.

Now, Couric and her competitors are using the Web to try to give viewers a sense of involvement that they can't get from the televised news programs. They're also trying to keep their "evening news" products relevant in an era of instant, around-the-clock access to information. (Brian Williams does a video blog in the early afternoon in part because NBC wants him to offer something online when traffic to news sites is highest.) It's an open question whether they can recapture any of the lost TV audience, but at least they're no longer anchored to a single medium.

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