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Katie Couric vs. Age Spots

Gary North
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CBS decided to bet tens of millions of dollars against statistical reality: Aging female celebrities are not popular with men. It is losing the bet. A May 14, 2007 article in the New York Times blew the whistle.

The numbers are stark. Eight months into Katie Couric's job as the first woman to anchor a network newscast on her own, her "CBS Evening News" has not only settled back into its long-held position of last among the evening news broadcasts, but also regularly falls short of the newscast that Ms. Couric replaced.

In the latest week's ratings, "CBS Evening News" had its worst performance since the Nielsen company installed its "people meter" ratings system 20 years ago.

Ms. Couric professed to be unfazed. "Honestly, I think we're going to see ebbs and flows," she said in a telephone interview the day after receiving the ratings news. "I don't think it's a doom-and-gloom scenario."

She sounded like George Bush on the Iraq war. Note: Bush's days are numbered. So are hers, I think.


THE INTERRUPTER

I was never a fan of Ms. Couric. On the rare occasions when I watched the Today Show, what caught my attention was Ms. Couric's tendency to interrupt the person she was interviewing. I do not recall any interviewer I have ever seen who did this more often on network TV.

She proved to millions of mothers that their advice to their daughters may have cost their girls a career. "It's not polite to interrupt, dear." To which an observant daughter could rightly respond: "Katie Couric interrupts people for a living and makes $15 million a year."

What also amazed me was the banality of her interruptions. This was not Barbara Walters, who got people to say all sorts of revealing things by playing the role of an interested discussion partner. This was Mike Wallace without the age spots. Then, anyway. Not for long.

From the day she took over as CBS anchor, I noticed that she looked older than I remembered. Either her makeup person was below par, or the lighting was wrong, or the new job's pressure had aged her, but she looked older. Yes, at age 49 (now 50), she still looked pretty good. But the clock was ticking.

On Today, her audience was women. They are less likely to abandon another woman just because she is aging. But the CBS Evening News is watched by men. She jumped ship from the demographic Queen Elizabeth II to the Titanic.

"This woman is going to wind up looking like Barbara Walters," I thought. "And she isn't as good an interviewer." When was the last time you saw Barbara Walters?

Ms. Couric's immediate predecessor, Bob Shieffer, was a fill-in after Dan Rather went the way of all flesh, and Shieffer knew it. So, he didn't follow the traditional Teleprompter script for anchors. He has spent years as an interviewer on Sunday morning's Face the Nation. When he got to the Evening News, he would often ask questions of reporters after their presentation. The questions were relevant to what the person had just reported. That was the first time I recall any TV anchorman actually interacting with reporters on assignment in the field. If these questions were scripted, they were done well. I notice that Ms. Kouric has continued the practice, and now the other network anchors are doing it.

I prefer to watch Charles Gibson on ABC. He doesn't trip over his tongue the way Brian Williams does, which carries on the tradition at NBC set by Tom Brokaw in his later years. Also, Gibson is older. This is an advantage for men. It is not an advantage for women.

"Unfair, unfair!" cry the women, just as they have throughout history. Tough. Meg Ryan has been missing in action. Michael Caine is still around. Get used to it. Roll with the punches. Sally Field did. She has made osteoporosis pay the bills. Life may be like a box of chocolates: you don't know what the next one will be. But this uncertainty is not complete. We know the age spots are coming.

CBS News forgot.


CONCLUSION

Why CBS rolled the loaded demographic dice is a mystery to me. CBS Evening News was in third place under Rather, third place under Shieffer, and remains in third place today. But Ms. Couric's network rivals will age as men age. Ms. Couric will not.

She was a cheerleader in high school. She has done very well since then. But the reality is this: cheerleaders fade.

So do Nielsen ratings.

I don't think Theraderm can help much here. But it wouldn't hurt.

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