Saturday 25 May 2019

Sorry to break the news to you, Katie...

The highest paid female newscaster in the world is facing the axe. Damian Corless has the story

Damien Corless

Precisely two years ago this week, a huge news story convulsed the US, but didn't rate a mention across the wider world. The NBC network's long-time early-bird, Katie Couric, handed in her notice after 16 years to take up a $15m (e9m) per annum post as evening news anchor at CBS.

In the media feeding frenzy that followed, the Iraq War briefly dipped below the radar and even the start of the baseball season was relegated.

Attempting to convey the seismic impact of Couric's move, one writer invited readers to imagine Jose Mourinho leaving Chelsea for Manchester United, Tony Blair defecting to the Tories, and Prince Charles eloping with glamour model Abi Titmuss -- all on the same day.

But now, two short and unsuccessful years later, Couric faces the axe. With her ratings a disaster, well-placed sources say that she will be promoted sideways within CBS after covering the inauguration of the next US President in January.

The dumping of Katie Couric has been applauded as a victory for the old news values of authority and depth, over the modern contamination of text polls, John Wayne-style analysis and blathering telly-totty.

From the outset, Couric was on a hiding to nothing with the core audience she hoped to capture -- those few millions who have stayed loyal to the three big networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) in the face of rising competiton from cable TV and the web.

Couric had a credibility problem from Day One. When she took her job with CBS, she took over a seat until recently occupied by the redoubtable Dan Rather, and before him by the legendary Walter Cronkite.

Couric was simply not cut from the same cloth as these hard-boiled newsmen. For years hosting NBC's Today show she'd been the nation's favourite hot soccer mom, sending the hubbies and kids off for the day with a sunny smile. It is no exaggeration to say that during her time on the Today show, her legs became as much a part of her celebrity as her winning personality -- when she appeared on Jay Leno's show, he jokingly had the desk cut away in front of her to afford his audience an optimum view.

Having spent her career interviewing soap stars and backslapping TV chefs, Couric was clearly no current affairs heavyweight, yet CBS wooed her with a five-year deal worth $75m to fit her dainty size-fours into the hefty size-13 of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. Why?

Because CBS decided that one universal rule applies today -- celebrity sells. The reasoning seemed impeccable. In the competition for the billions of advertising dollars at stake in the US, audiences follow celebrities, and advertisers follow audiences. CBS was in a ratings war with NBC's Nightly News, hosted by the gravitas-laiden Brian Williams (salary $4m pa), and ABC's World News presented by salty veteran Charles Gibson (salary $7m pa).

Taking the view that celebrity value is the only value left in broadcasting, CBS reasoned that it was worth paying Katie Couric $15m a year on the grounds that she would deliver advertising revenues worth many multiples of that.

The gamble on Couric initially seemed a winner. Her first broadcast in the new slot drew 13.6 million viewers, pushing the CBS news into first place with double its normal audience. But a slump set in immediately, and within weeks Couric was languishing in a poor third place, where she's remained.

As the rot set in, CBS pulled out all the stops to gain Couric brownie points as a proper news-gatherer. In an ill-judged stunt, she was shipped out to Iraq where she was wrapped in so many layers of cotton wool that her standing as a newshound was ridiculed.

Behind the scenes, the scenes became unsavoury. Uncomfortable with some of the terminology used in hard news, Couric attacked one of her editors for including the word 'sputum' in her script for an item on TB. Shocked staff watched as she slapped the editor "over and over" for his transgression.

Couric admited she was "out of my comfort zone". Perhaps she should have stayed in that comfort zone, but as she looks forward to a couple of years in semi-retirement on $15m pa, she can take some comfort from the fact that most of the egg is on the face of CBS, who proved that maybe you can go broke by underestimating the intelligence of your audience.

n While top US newscasters earn $4m-$15m pa, Irish salaries don't come close. RTE's news payscale is €67-73K pa, although senior figures Bryan Dobson and Anne Doyle have customised contracts earning far more.

n Anne Doyle, named Newscaster Of The Year at the recent TV Now awards, is Ireland's longest-serving female newsreader, but not the first. That distinction went to Geraldine McInerney in 1975, 13 years after RTE began.

n In 1970, RTE's head of radio features, Donncha O'Dulaing, suggested that "the housewife" might not want to even hear news, saying: "What is often called 'wallpaper radio', with time signals, may be a good answer to her problem."

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