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CBS Campaigns For Couric

How low can she go?

That was the question two weeks ago when CBS Evening News With Katie Couric suffered its worst audience totals in 20 years (5.5 million viewers). And that was 464,000 viewers fewer than the prior week's all-time low. Season-to-date, the show is off 6% from a year ago, when anchor Bob Schieffer was improving the newscast's ratings.

“It just takes time,” says Executive Producer Rick Kaplan.

CBS stands steadfastly behind its star and is working the angles. Kaplan hopes to get all of CBS' 200-plus affiliates to go “seamless” between local news and Couric's broadcast. (The owned-and-operated stations are already commercial-free between newscasts.)

“You don't want to give viewers a chance to leave your network,” says Kaplan.

CBS News also will launch an “aggressive promotional campaign” this summer that includes a prominent online presence, although Kaplan declined to offer details. “You do all the things you can do,” he says. “We're confident that, between the quality of our program and the strength of CBS, we'll be able to not only hold our audience, but grow it. We've proved that we can have large audiences in the past. It's a matter of bringing them back and keeping them.”

Couric debuted to an inflated 13.6 million viewers. But early sampling dissipated, and the newscast's switch from a light, feature-heavy half-hour back to a more traditional, hard-news format has not stopped the rating hemorrhage.

A confluence of events has conspired to wreak havoc with evening-news ratings: early Daylight Saving Time, Iraq-war fatigue, audience fragmentation and online cannibalization.

CBS has endured considerable scrutiny, thanks in no small part to Couric's celebrity status and $15 million salary.

“Obviously, it's easy to highlight us simply because we're in third,” says Kaplan. “So, that's fine. But other people have even more severe problems, one might say.”

Indeed, NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams has lost a bigger percentage of its audience than Couric has, dropping 7% this season and being supplanted at No. 1 by ABC's World News With Charles Gibson, which is up 3%. As Gibson has overcome some initial stiffness and grown comfortable in the anchor seat, World News is riding a 10-year high to become the most-watched nightly newscast, averaging 8.76 million viewers and a 2.2/9 among adults 25-54. It's followed by NBC, with 8.63 million and the same demo rating. Nightly News endured its lowest ratings since the advent of people meters for the week ended May 18.

“If you take away the horse race and just take the three networks added together, the decline has been going on now for 30 years,” says Andrew Tyndall, who analyzes newscasts on the online Tyndall Report. That decline, he adds, “may be faster now than a couple years ago. But it's not outside of the trend.”

News viewers, concedes Kaplan, “tend to be fairly loyal. But they also surf around, and a good program is going to catch their eye. I love our anchor, and I love our program.”