08.31.10

Collapse at CBS News

With a new round of layoffs expected this fall, CBS News is being trimmed to the bone. Rebecca Dana on the dramatic drop in ratings, strange BlackBerry blackouts, and eager suitors for anchor Katie Couric.

On Monday, Katie Couric begins her fifth, and quite possibly final, year of hard labor as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

However she chooses to mark the occasion, it will no doubt be more subdued than the tears, dancing, and $10 million promotional campaign that attended her debut on Sept. 5, 2006.

The person who handled ordering business cards vanished, and staffers haven’t been able to get them since.

Four years and a reported $60 million later, Couric now sits atop a news division that is in many ways unrecognizable as the one-time home of Walter Cronkite—or even the deep-pocketed, star-struck company that lured Couric to Cronkite’s vacant chair with promises of wealth, fame, and a place in history.

In the intervening years, Couric has achieved all those things. She’s accumulated prizes for her work and thrown herself into tweeting, blogging, and anchoring special broadcasts on CBSNews.com. It hasn’t always been a smooth road. After a strong start, the CBS Evening News ratings dropped dramatically in the early years of her tenure, culminating in talks between her agent and CBS executives about the anchor leaving before the end of her contract. But Couric rebounded during the 2008 presidential campaign, securing her place at the network and in history books with a series of triumphant interviews with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In 2008 and 2009, the CBS Evening News won the Edward R. Murrow award for best newscast.

But even as Couric and her team racked up plaudits, CBS News has withered. Layoffs and cutbacks, the most recent in February, have trimmed the division close to the bone, and according to senior staffers, another round is coming this fall. The network’s two premier daily broadcasts, Couric’s Evening News and the CBS Early Show, are recording particularly dismal ratings this summer.

“These are tough times for everyone,” Couric said in a statement provided through her spokesman, “but I for one am proud to be working with so many talented, dedicated people who continue to work hard to maintain the highest journalistic standards that have always been associated with CBS News.”

In the last two weeks, the CBS Evening News has drawn just 4.89 million viewers on average, the lowest ratings recorded in the 20 years Nielsen Media Research has been keeping track. During the first of those two weeks, Couric traveled to Afghanistan and landed an exclusive interview with Gen. David Petraeus, among others. The CBS Early Show has logged around 2.2 million viewers on average this summer, less than half the ratings of NBC’s Today.

One person described the atmosphere inside the network as “sepulchral.”

The entire news business has contracted in recent years, as viewers and readers have fled, depending on their age, either to the Internet or to retirement homes. Advertising dried up in the recession, devastating both local and national newspapers and television broadcasts. It hasn’t been pretty anywhere, but it’s been particularly rough for CBS.

The Tiffany network began this latest period of attrition at a considerable disadvantage. It has by far the weakest station group, meaning its news broadcasts reach the fewest number of potential viewers and commonly have the lowest-rated local news lead-ins in the largest markets in the country. Couric inherited a third-place broadcast when she joined the network, one recently marred by her predecessor Dan Rather’s involvement in the problematic 60 Minutes II report on President Bush’s service in the National Guard.

CBS has not been alone in making brutal cuts. First-place NBC News lost a chunk of its staff as part of the “NBC 2.0” reorganization in 2006 and has implemented various other cost-saving measures since, including an initiative to share newsgathering resources at the station level with Fox. Second-place ABC News axed around 300 staffers, or upward of 20 percent of its news division, in February of this year.

Around the same time, CBS announced a round of layoffs that reduced the roughly 1,400-person staff by nearly 100. A host of smaller snips came as well: The person who handled ordering business cards vanished, and staffers haven’t been able to get them since. Cell phone services are blocked on company-provided BlackBerrys for many producers, who are now encouraged to communicate by text. The communication between CBS brass, including news division president Sean McManus, and their staff has all but vanished.

“There’s no email,” said one producer. “There is no sense at all that you’re at a network.”

A CBS News spokesman said in a statement: “The facts are that the CBS News Division was just nominated for more Emmys than the other networks combined, that, in addition to the important news we air every day, we continue to broadcast enormously popular number 1 programs like 60 Minutes, 48 Hours and Sunday Morning, that Face the Nation is closer to first place than it has been in at least as many years as our records go back, that we have the fastest growing online presence in CBSNews.com, and that we have by far the most critically acclaimed and successful radio news in the industry.  Our audiences number in the tens of millions every week. Those are the facts. Anything else is water cooler gossip and empty speculation. We are evolving and we are thriving.”

There is thriving and then there is surviving, though, and while CBS News may be amassing awards, financially, the division is scraping by. One redress has been layoffs; the latest round is expected to be smaller than the last, and the most popular programs, including 60 Minutes and 48 Hours, are expected to get a pass.

Another cost-saving plan, looming for years, has focused on somehow merging CBS News with CNN. One source called this “the inevitability that never happened.” Another, high up in the CBS ranks, said it is extremely unlikely ever to, given enormous obstacles contained within the network’s union and affiliate group contract.

But whereas CBS is stuck with itself going forward, Couric isn’t stuck anywhere. A number of carefully stacked dominoes will determine her next move: whether Comcast chooses to keep her old producing partner Jeff Zucker, now president and CEO of NBC Universal, who might be in a position to reinstall her in her old spot on Today, provided Meredith Vieira doesn’t extend her contract beyond a year. Or whether Piers Morgan hammers out a contract to take over Larry King’s time slot at Time Warner’s CNN, which had long been considered a good landing pad for Couric. And what CBS offers her in terms of daytime or syndicated work, in place of or in addition to her role on the evening news.

Back in May, Couric was honored for her career achievements by the Museum of the Moving Image. All her potential suitors were there, and NBC in particular came out in force, buying a table and filling it with network bigs, including news president Steve Capus. The TV news business may have all but collapsed in the years since Couric gambled on history, becoming the first solo female anchor of a broadcast network newscast. But already, a familiar dynamic began to emerge.

On the red carpet at the St. Regis Hotel, Couric smiled for the cameras, first with Time Warner chief executive Jeff Bewkes, then with her old Today partner Matt Lauer. In the pictures, it looks as if no time has passed at all.

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.