Changes At CBS News Go Deeper Than Just A New Anchor
When Katie Couric unveils her version of the "CBS Evening News" tonight, it will mark the beginning of a new era at the network. Beyond all the cosmetic differences, however, the changes that have taken place within the Tiffany halls go deeper than even all the breathless publicity and attention suggests. Yes, the network has a new face – a household name making history as the first woman to anchor a network broadcast alone. There will be a new look – new set, new graphics, different color scheme and new theme music. By any measurement -- money, manpower or hype -- tonight's show will be the culmination of a very large investment. And it's the product of a little new thinking and a lot of new blood.
After several weeks of conversations, observations and, well, flat-out snooping, I thought it would be beneficial to give you all a glimpse of what the folks at CBS News are saying and doing behind the scenes and put it all into some historical perspective. Suffice it to say, things are a little different.
Sure you know that Dan Rather no longer hangs his hat at CBS. Gone too is longtime network fixture and former news president Andrew Heyward. Other vacancies include folks like former senior VP Marcy McGinnis and "Evening News" executive producer Jim Murphy. Rome Hartman, the new EP of the nightly broadcast is no stranger to anyone at the news division, having been a fixture at "60 Minutes" for years. But new additions like news president Sean McManus and senior VP Paul Friedman have brought some new blood into the mix. In short, CBS News looks and feels a whole lot different than it did when Public Eye launched nearly one year ago.
Put into some context, this new broadcast will premier in circumstances unlike any in network history. Almost all anchor chair changes are centered upon continuity and continuity alone. When Rather took over from Walter Cronkite or Brian Williams from Tom Brokaw, it was with a nod to the status quo. The basic formula of the broadcast remained the same, the look familiar. Sure, there has been some tweaking along the way – duel anchors, bringing Connie Chung in to sit alongside Rather, even the recent short-lived Bob Woodruff-Elizabeth Vargas combination – but it's almost always done with more a look toward the past than a leap into the future.
From all indications, this new "Evening News" broadcast will break from all that in some substantial ways. It appears this isn't going to be the MTV-version of a show that many once feared but it's not going to be "the way it is" either. Features like the Free Speech segment will certainly be different. And the promise of a more conversational, in-depth and curious newscast, while not exactly inventive to most of us, has the CBS News division at least anticipating something new.
Other than the daily "opinion section" feature (Free Speech), much remains uncertain when it comes to the actual format of the show. We've been told that some of the focus will be to give viewers a better understanding of what stories mean to them – not exactly news-you-can-use but more in-depth exploration of why a story is news. We've been told there will be more of a focus on the positive – not feel-good stories necessarily, but not all doom-and-gloom either. Look for a more conversational style of delivering the news and even a touch of humor. Will we see a radically different show? Probably not, but we should notice the changes in tone and format without looking too hard.
The very look of the show meshes in many ways with what we've heard from Couric, Hartman and McManus about the new direction. The set, music and graphics of a broadcast of course are going to help communicate what the network wants to present. In designing it all, there were some key words and concepts that guided the process.
The set was designed around ideas like "elegant," "clean," "warmer" and "softer." The goal was not to look futuristic, like many new inventions in television news, but to look real and authentic. My take: The set, graphics and look definitely shouts "warmer." Gone is the sterile, cold-blue set and newsroom. It's been replaced with a much brighter, golden-hued look that is more welcoming. The new theme music is a little much for me – too cinematic and sweeping – but I'm not a big fan of news themes to begin with.
All these changes have certainly had quite an impact on the news division as a whole. Reactions vary depending on who one talks to but the most-used description I hear used is: buzz. There is a definite "buzz" around the broadcast center these days. It's almost like a spring thaw after a cold winter of uncertainty. One year ago, Les Moonves, president of CBS, was threatening to blow up the news division. He was half-heartedly talking about putting "The Naked News" on the air. The elevation of Hartman and McManus helped calm fears about less-than-journalistic possibilities but the water didn't really start rushing downhill until Couric was finally named as the new face of the network. Since then, the buzz has all been about getting this show on the air September 5.
While there is something refreshing about this new forward motion, not everyone is thrilled with the direction. For many, there are fears of what these changes mean for them, concerns that some will be left behind. CBS News is an institution with great tradition. There is a wealth of experience -- producers, correspondents, cameramen and others who've logged decades at the network. Not all of them are being brought along for the ride, at least not at the moment, and that causes concern. With so many changes, where do they fit in – or do they fit in at all?
And with so many resources being poured into the "Evening News," many are wondering whether their shows are going to be hurt as a result. Certainly "60 Minutes" is a franchise unto itself and can only benefit from Couric's arrival, especially since she will be a contributor to the show. But what about "48 Hours," "The Early Show," and "Sunday Morning?" Will they be asked to do more with less? What about the network's bureaus in places like Washington, London and Los Angeles? What does this all mean for them? There are few answers but there does seems to be an innate understanding that the network will swim or sink together on the basis of Couric's success, thus an acceptance of the situation – for now. How it all plays out in the coming months will be worth watching.
Big changes have taken place at CBS News this past year – arguably bigger than at any time in the network's storied history. The broadcast premiering tonight is in many ways both a gamble and a necessity in today's media landscape. But that doesn't mean ties to the past have been cut altogether. The big question surrounding tonight's show seems to be whether Walter Cronkite will be used to introduce the broadcast. While it may be a little gimmicky, I, for one, hope they do it. I'm all for change, but keeping that tradition alive is important too. It appears this new version of CBS News will try to do both. Will they be successful? I'll be curious to hear what you think.