Monday, May. 08, 2006

Katie Couric

It is only one measure of Katie Couric's influence that her new job—evening news anchor — is the most prestigious in TV journalism. The other measure is that her old job—morning-show host—is, thanks largely to her, probably the most important in TV journalism.

When Couric, 49, took over NBC's Today in 1991, the show was in a ratings dive. By this spring, when she agreed to take the Cronkite-Rather post at CBS, Today had been the No. 1 morning show for more than a decade. More important, the morning is now not just TV news's moneymaker but also its agenda setter: it is where newsmakers come first to state their cases and address their scandals (at least until the cooking segments).

Personable but persistent, Couric has a gymnast's flexibility and a sometimes deceptive amiability: more than one interviewee has fallen into the Venus flytrap of her neighborly charm. After all those Macy's Thanksgiving Day parades, however, some critics have wondered whether she had the ballast to, as the job title says, anchor a newscast. But considering how its audience has dwindled — fallen to competing media, changing schedules, apathy — the evening news may need less an anchor than a spotlight: someone who can get viewers' attention as well as their empathy.

Like Cronkite — albeit with a different style — Couric does both. On Today, she created a bond with the audience that was part familial, part professional, as when she lost husband Jay Monahan to colon cancer, then drew on her experience for a series of reports on cancer awareness. Couric's star power alone guarantees a healthy tune-in when she takes to CBS in September. She will need to draw on her talent for mass intimacy to meet her real challenge: to keep viewers interested in the news even after she has stopped being it.