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Couric's Move May Give CBS Evening Boost

Updated:
NEW YORK (AP) _ Stack a quarter for every obituary written about the network evening newscasts and soon there would be enough to pay Katie Couric's salary at CBS.

Couric's move to the ``CBS Evening News'' promises a jolt of energy for a television institution that is too often written off, even while in the midst of its most significant transition in a generation, both on and off-screen.

``I think it's terrific that somebody of Katie Couric's caliber and talent is going into that genre, because that says to me that there is real importance in that evening-news format and there's going to continue to be real investment in it,'' said Steve Capus, whose work at NBC's ``Nightly News'' led to his elevation to network news president.

Morning news is considered the growth area in television, and Couric was its cover girl. The evening news has been slowly and steadily waning in influence and audience, the victim of cultural changes that make fewer people available to watch a half-hour news summary at the dinner hour.

All three networks have different anchors than just 16 months ago, with changes expected again at both ABC and CBS before summer's end.

Somewhat remarkably, the on-air changes have resulted in no changes in the network pecking order. NBC's ``Nightly News,'' which executed a neat transition between Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams, still leads in the ratings, with ABC second and CBS third.

Yet an Associated Press-TV Guide poll taken last week illustrated how audience loyalty is still up for grabs and that the American public hasn't fully made the transition from the Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather era.

Asked to name their favorite network-TV news personality, only a total of 10 percent named any of the three people anchoring the evening newscasts now: Williams, CBS' Bob Schieffer or ABC's Elizabeth Vargas. The rest either named someone else or, nearly half the time, no one at all.

Couric, who will start at CBS in September, gives that network a very recognizable personality. Behind the amiable Schieffer, the ``CBS Evening News'' is the only nightly newscast to gain viewers in the past year. But CBS executives hope Couric can attract more people, particularly young people, who had liked her in the morning.

``This is a very good move for CBS, for Katie and, frankly, for broadcast news more generally,'' said Frank Sesno, a journalism professor at George Mason University and CNN special correspondent. ``I think the evening news has become formulaic.''

Actually, each network has aggressively tried to change the institution, often in ways not noticeable on-screen at the dinner hour.

NBC has fostered connections with viewers by enlisting Williams and correspondents like David Gregory as bloggers. The network also makes ``Nightly News'' available on the Web, although not until after it is aired on television in each time zone.

``You can't just do the broadcast alone,'' Capus said. ``You have to be on every platform you can.''

Similarly, CBS has moved aggressively to try to make its news Web site akin to a cable-news network online. On the Internet it will often feature more extensive versions of evening-news stories, said Rome Hartman, ``CBS Evening News'' executive producer.

``I'm thrilled that more people are watching the broadcast at 6:30 on their television sets,'' Hartman said, ``but I will also be thrilled if people see things like Steve Hartman's story (on an autistic basketball player) on the Internet.''

CBS took the rare step of repeating that inspirational story from last month on a subsequent evening newscast.

While the NBC and ABC newscasts don't look significantly different from when Brokaw and the late Jennings were on the air, there have been real changes at CBS. Schieffer has drawn praise for showcasing network correspondents by ``debriefing'' them on-air with plainspoken questions.

``We've made significant changes, not so much in the format but in the approach and in the style of the evening news, and I feel like we're just in the beginning of the process,'' Hartman said.

Expect a new set and new graphics when Couric takes over, along with a format that plays to her strengths as an interviewer.

For about three weeks earlier this year it looked as if ABC's ``World News Tonight'' had made the most revolutionary changes.

The network installed the anchor team of Vargas and Bob Woodruff and set them on a schedule where one would almost always be on location at a story. It instituted an afternoon Webcast that previewed the evening's broadcast, and committed to doing separate versions of ``World News Tonight'' for Western time zones.

Tragedy struck when Woodruff was severely injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Jan. 29. He's still recovering, and Vargas is going it alone. That has cut out the travel, which ABC had hoped would make its newscast distinctive. To keep Vargas from burning out, ABC doesn't always do separate West Coast versions. The Webcast continues, and last week was the top-downloaded news podcast on iTunes, the network said.

With Woodruff out indefinitely and Vargas pregnant, ABC is expected to soon introduce another anchor to the mix _ most likely Charles Gibson.

``This is a time of amazing change for all of the evening newscasts,'' said CBS' Rome Hartman. ``The last one has been a year unlike any we've seen across the industry in 20 years.''

Hartman believes a news event like Hurricane Katrina underscored the format's importance. While the story received continuous coverage on the cable networks, rarely did they stand back and put the day's events in perspective like ABC, CBS and NBC did each evening, he said.

With Couric aboard, the competition will undoubtedly heighten.

``I look forward to having a good fight,'' Capus said.
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