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On the Web, a looser anchor

Katie Couric's live webcasts let her play to her strengths: cheeky and off-the-cuff.

September 06, 2008|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Katie Couric was listening to Declan McCullagh, CNET's chief political correspondent, explain Barack Obama's and John McCain's stances on Net neutrality.

"Well, whatever that meant," the anchor said after his wonky account of copyright issues. "No, Declan, that was fascinating," she added with a laugh, not very convincingly.

Couric's cheeky remark would have likely raised eyebrows if she had made it on the "CBS Evening News." But the anchor wasn't on the air. She was hosting a live webcast on CBSNews.com, which aired nightly during the national political conventions after network airtime ran out.

The irreverent webcast, with its radically different tone from a network broadcast, offered a clue about Couric's current interests.

After two often-trying years at CBS that have seen her evening newscast lag in third place, it's unclear whether the anchor wants to remain in her post through her contract in 2011. Earlier this year, she met with CBS executives to discuss the prospect of leaving early, perhaps even after the November elections.

For now, those discussions have been tabled. Couric insists she plans to stick around and appears tired of queries about her future. When a reporter mentioned her possible departure during a phone interview Thursday, the anchor cut her off: "I'm not even going to entertain that question. I've been through it a million times."

Actually, the reporter continued, I just wanted to ask you how you're enjoying the job right now.

"Oh!" Couric replied. "I'm having a blast."

Colleagues say she appears especially invigorated by a new project -- developing a presence online. Couric has her own freewheeling YouTube channel and used Digg.com to solicit questions from viewers during the conventions. She came up with the idea of doing a live Web show after each night of the political confabs.

"The Web has a different vibe and kind of a more relaxed sensibility, which I think plays to my strengths, which is sort of extemporaneous, more spontaneous, off-the-cuff broadcasting," she said.

It's an environment Couric admits she misses from her "Today" show days. The network initially experimented with a looser tone when Couric took over the "CBS Evening News" but jettisoned those features when viewership fell.

Online, the anchor casts aside all the reserve that she exhibits on the air. She ribbed her colleagues -- "Byron, dude, it's a webcast, it's not a miniseries!" she teased national correspondent Byron Pitts after a particularly long interview -- and shouted out questions to startled delegates nearby.

Couric joked with former White House aide Dan Bartlett that he's "a total hunk of burning love," did a headstand at a yoga class hosted by the Huffington Post and signed off one webcast by thumping her fist on her chest and making the peace sign.

"It gives us a chance to be a lot more unplugged," said Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "CBS Evening News." "In some ways, it's more interesting than what any of the networks do, including our own, on the [prime-time] specials, because you have serious business to take care of then."

It's unclear how many people actually tuned in to watch. CBS declined to release any figures, but a spokeswoman said the audience grew consistently over two weeks.

Couric said the point of the webcast wasn't to drive ratings but to experiment.

"This is very liberating, because we can try whatever we want, and I don't think people are paying that much attention to it, or at least analyzing it with a fine-tooth comb," she added.

Couric used the forums to do meaty interviews with presidential progenies Susie Eisenhower and Caroline Kennedy, chastising the latter for giving "a real non-answer" to her question about the vice presidential selection process.

At times, the segments were frothier. Last week's guests included Cyndi Lauper ("Come up here, girlfriend!" Couric called out to the singer), actress Morgan Fairchild, two WWE wrestlers and a costumed devil and angel promoting voter registration.

At one point, Couric stopped the webcast to narrate a delegate's efforts to extricate himself from a folding chair in which he had gotten stuck.

"Sounds like you're having a ball, Katie," senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield said dryly. "You know, Edward R. Murrow, were he alive today, would be envying this kind of coverage."

Kaplan said Couric's approach was appropriate.

"The only problem I have with Katie is that she's so exuberant that getting her to say good night is very difficult sometimes," he said.

On Tuesday, Couric objected when Kaplan tried to cut the webcast off after 25 minutes.

"What, the World Wide Web wants it over?" she asked, laughing as she lowered her voice: "Hi, this is Mr. World Wide Web, please wrap it up!

"I wish I could do this during the real broadcast," the anchor added with a wistful chuckle. "But of course I can't."

--

matea.gold@latimes.com

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