If nothing else, Katie Couric’s earlier-than-expected departure from the CBS Evening News should call into question the superstar anchor system for television news.

And if CBS executives can’t see the end of her $15-million-a-year contract as an opportunity to add to its news-reporting staff, I feel sorry for those geniuses.

How many producers, assistant producers, and other journalist types could $15 million pay for?

Well, let’s say they average $150,000 each, including benefits—and that’s being generous for an average—you get one hundred reporters and editors. That’s a newsroom right here, and maybe an overseas bureau thrown in, if you low-ball them.

Simplistic, you say? Reductive? Naïve? I’ll get to that.

But listen, it’s not just Couric, and certainly not just anchors, that are dragging down news operations.

Check out what her boss, Les Moonves, made in 2007: $36 million. Ka-ching. Put it this way, Moonves’s bonus—$18.5 million, cash money— is more than Couric’s entire (and entirely) gross annual pay.

That’s up 28 percent, by the way, from 2006, according to the Los Angeles Times’s enterprising Meg James, who pulled the data from CBS’s latest proxy filing last week and found someone to put it in perspective.

“That goes against the trend. We are seeing no increases and even reductions in salary,” said James F. Reda, a New York-based consultant on executive compensation. “To have a 28% increase is really unusual.”

For an executive-comp consultant—the always-careful-not-to-offend people who helped bring us this out-of-whack, back-scratching executive-compensation racket, whoops! I mean “system”—to say something is “against the trend” and “really unusual” is the equivalent of a normal person saying, “That’s un-%#@$&-believable!”

It’s sad, by the way, that a reporter has to go find an expert to tell us, in the mildest possible language, that something is “really unusual,” when even Moonves 2006 compensation of $26 million—let’s call that the “usual” pay —makes no damned sense.

Oh, and here’s how CBS explains Moonves’s raise:

In the proxy, CBS explained the increases, saying that the company raised its dividend payment to stockholders by 25% to 25 cents.

So, let’s see if we can follow the logic on this one. At a time of media industry upheaval, when great innovation, investment, and imagination are required, CBS is returning to shareholders their own money because it can’t think of another use for it. And somehow, that justifies a raise. That’s nuts.

And how about this part of the company’s justification:

It also exceeded its targets for operating income and free cash flow.

I notice “net income,” that pesky bottom line, was not among the metrics cited. That was down 15 percent in the fourth quarter, as The Wall Street Journal’s Merissa Marr reported:


CBS generated significant cash but little growth in its earnings, fanning ongoing concerns about the long-term prospects of its traditional businesses. TV and radio were both weak, with radio’s operating income plunging 22%, as the sale of stations and softer ad sales took a toll.

James of the LAT puts Moonves’s pay in perspective:

The disclosure comes at an awkward time for CBS, which has been pummeled by steep declines in prime-time television ratings and softness in advertising sales at its radio and TV stations. CBS revenue declined 2% in 2007 to $14 billion, and net income fell 24% to $1.25 billion.

CBS shares, meanwhile, fell 21% from their peak in July 2007 to the end of the year, and have tumbled another 21% since January.

To shave costs, CBS last week laid off more than 160 news anchors, reporters and technicians from its TV stations across the country. The move followed cuts last year in the radio division.

Cuts in the newsroom. Now that’s a brilliant strategy. And how well it seems to be working. Why didn’t Dow Jones think of that one?

What other strategic initiatives has Moonves run up the flagpole?

On top of that, Moonves just moved CBS’ top West Coast executives from their longtime home at Television City in the Fairfax district into lavish, multimillion-dollar offices in Studio City.

All right, then.

Not surprisingly, CBS investors are not as impressed with those “operating income” and “free-cash flow” numbers, or, for that matter, the dividend, as CBS’s compensation committee apparently is. Here’s CBS compared to its peers:












All I can say is, thank goodness for Time Warner, a true disaster.

But listen, we’re talking about Couric and news budgets and all that. Officially, by the way, a CBS spokeswoman says no changes are planned:

We are very proud of the CBS Evening News, particularly our political coverage. And there are no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.