Moonves gave Couric a vote of confidence of sorts last December, the LAT reported :
“I think our product’s as good as anyone’s,” Moonves said as recently as December, speaking at a media conference. He added about Couric: “I still believe in her. Hardest worker in town.”
See, but it just seems to us up here at the Columbia Journalism Review—and really, when’s the last time we rode around in a black Town Car making important strategic decisions about far-flung media properties? It’s been years, if ever—that the “product” that CBS Evening News produces is, like, um, news, you know, in the, ah, evening.
And—again, just blue-skying it here, L.M.; stay with me—that perhaps additional news reporters, or “producers,” or “product producers,” or whatever they’re called in TV—anyway, additional journalists—might actually produce a journalistic product that is, um, qualitatively of, ah, a higher, err what’s the word?… quality, you know, product-wise, productivity-wise, as measured by focus groups, and, um, page-views, and “hits” and whatnot and so forth. But again, we don’t know high finance or any damned thing up here, let alone TV.
But let’s get down to brass tacks, L.M. Your spokeswoman won’t comment, but a person familiar with situation tells us that the so-called “newsgathering budget” for all of CBS News, including salaries, travel, camera people, technicians—not including 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, which have separate budgets, for some reason—is about $300 million. CBS News employs around 1,100 people, this person says.
But remember, those figures include the whole ball of wax. An increase in the news budget of $15 million, $10 million, or even $5 million is not a marginal number. It means more boots on the ground, more reach, more foreign-based reporting, more travel, and especially, more time—time for thought, for the extra calls, for investigations, and, importantly, time for stories to fall through if the facts don’t really support them, as they didn’t for a half-baked 60 Minutes piece on supposedly marauding hedge funds that were actually in the right .
All this, to me, makes the news more authoritative, credible, powerful, and relevant.
I understand, by the way, that Couric’s salary probably didn’t all come from the Evening News budget and that, indeed, the news budget probably grew to accommodate her pay and the revamping of the show.
But this is about emphasis: Spend less on the star system, less on gimmicks. Spend more on building up the newsroom.
Don’t like that idea? Okay, but Moonves’s anchor-focused strategy clearly didn’t work. I don’t mean to downplay the anchor’s job; it’s clearly important. Couric may not have seemed entirely comfortable in the role, but she’s obviously a big talent. It’s pretty clear that CBS’s biggest mistake was attempting to reinvent the evening news around her, as the Journal’s Rebecca Dana reported in the scoop that started all this:
When she started on the show in September 2006, Ms. Couric incorporated longer interviews, occasionally conducted in front of a fireplace, and chatty asides into the broadcast. For the first few days, curiosity drove more than 10 million viewers to tune in, but in the months that followed, Ms. Couric’s ratings plummeted to a low for the broadcast, bottoming out to around five million in the spring of 2007—well below the seven million viewers the show was drawing before Ms. Couric’s arrival.
Since then, the network has scaled back its ambitions drastically, returning to a traditional format. Ratings have ticked up modestly, but Ms. Couric’s show is still placing a distant third.
It strikes me as a significant data point that Couric’s show never made it to the levels achieved by Bob Schieffer, who took over after Dan Rather’s ouster.
Is Schieffer better than Couric? No.
Media competitors and analysts have been baffled by growing circulation and revenue at the Economist and the Financial Times, while the rest of the print industry is falling apart. Sure, those are financial publications, and the economy is of interest right now. And yes, I have problems with both of them, journalistically, for reasons I’ll get into in another post.
But think of it this way: they both offer information readers find relevant in a straightforward manner. They don’t rely on gimmicks. They’re not reinventing anything. They don’t talk down to readers. Both offer a lot of international coverage, too, come to think of it.
I believe that a straightforward approach to news reporting and presentation is the way to go. Report. Write. Do the work.
Will that make the CBS Evening News more popular and therefore profitable? Well, to put it in Moonves’s terms, you’ve got to believe in the product. The product is the news.