by Marc H. Rudov
April 1, 2011
Originally Published in June 2007
CBS’s Flawed Business Strategy
Dan Rather’s criticism of his old employer, CBS News, wreaked havoc this week. With Katie Couric in the $16M anchor chair, CBS News is experiencing the worst ratings in its history. Mr. Rather asserted that the Tiffany Network caused the ratings slide in its news division by “dumbing it down and tarting it up.” Les Moonves, president of CBS, shot back by labeling Rather’s comments “sexist.” Sexist? More like spot-on.
I rarely agree with Dan Rather, but I concur with him in this case. Why did CBS dumb down and tart up its news division? It’s not rocket science, folks. Look no further than Paris Hilton. There is no other way to provide round-the-clock coverage of her pathetic life than to use small words and pretty pictures. But, that’s what the masses want, and that’s what all the networks are delivering to them. If you want to know what real sexism is, Mr. Moonves, it’s following a blonde bubblehead from dawn ’til dusk.
There is, however, more to the debacle at CBS Evening News than the blonde-izing of it. This venerable broadcast slot had become a magnet for people in their 60s, mostly males. As such, it is an advertiser’s nightmare and a money-loser for any network. So, CBS News decided to target young females — fresh college graduates up to those in their mid-30s.
CBS’s solution: hire the perky Katie Couric, whom the target audience loved on the Today Show. Unfortunately, the Today Show and hard news are lightyears apart and require different personalities. Even the affable Matt Lauer couldn’t cut it in hard news.
I remember when Katie Couric arrived. Mothers exclaimed that they would watch her with their daughters, marking a new chapter in feminist history. Yeah, right. I couldn’t take more than five minutes of her program. Because she couldn’t think of a signoff, she asked her audience to suggest one — a demonstration of zero authority. Then, she began a series of wardrobe shifts and experiments, then alternated standing and sitting while delivering the news — more evidence that something was awry.
All of this was predictable, because there are three fundamental flaws in CBS’s business strategy:
1. The news anchor is a dying, obsolescing occupation. There was a time when the network anchor was the source of news and that what he or she delivered was actually news. No longer. We have 24-hour cable news (with all points of view), the Internet, text messages, news radio, and talk radio. By the time the 22 minutes of broadcast evening “news” airs, much of it left-leaning, everything is old. At this juncture, any occupant of the anchor chair is essentially irrelevant; this will be more the case five years hence
2. Targeting young females is futile. They don’t watch or care about the news. Hell, they don’t even vote (21 million American women under 44 years old aren’t registered). These women are too busy shopping, manicuring, bar-hopping, and emulating the shallow lifestyle of Paris Hilton. What they know about the war in Iraq comes from Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, a Bush-hating satirization of the news3. Katie Couric is not serious-news material. I just cannot take Katie seriously — and not because of her gender. It’s her personality. I like her personality, for light fare. That’s what she’s good at. I would have no problem getting hard news from Michelle Malkin or Megyn Kelly of Fox News, or Norah O’Donnell of MSNBC. They are attractive and able to discuss serious subjects with ease and authority. Katie Couric cannot.
Rx from The WhiteNoise Doctor
Katie Couric — the wrong person in a vanishing job, seeking a nonexistent female audience — is now delivering news to a dwindling crowd of 60-something men while the ratings plummet. Hiring Katie Couric was a fundamental violation of Marketing 101, at a sunk cost of $16M per year and untold opportunity costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
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The situation at CBS News is unworkable, and Les Moonves will have to deal with the inevitable, sooner or later. He keeps saying he wants to give Katie “more time,” but that is a ruse, a stalling tactic. Calling Dan Rather’s remarks sexist is pure sophistry and defensiveness.
Eventually, and maybe sooner than we think, Mr. Moonves will be forced to give Katie Couric the bad news: “Good night and good luck.”
Copyright © 2007 by Marc H. Rudov. All Rights Reserved.