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Katie's whirlwind tour

Hundreds of guests had the chance to spend one more morning with Katie Couric as she came to help raise money for cancer awareness.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published July 11, 2006

Katie Couric in Tampa Bay
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Katie Couric, the new host of the CBS Evening News, talks with Cheryl Hardy , left, and her daughter, Laura Hardy, after Couric spoke at a breakfast fundraiser for the American Cancer Society at Ruth Eckerd Hall Monday morning. Cheryl Hardy lost her husband to colon cancer at age 45 in 1998, the same year the disease took Couric's husband.

CLEARWATER - Want to gauge the power of celebrity?

Then consider the sold-out crowd of 300 who plunked down at least $150 each to pack a dining room inside Ruth Eckerd Hall at 8 a.m. Monday morning for a brief breakfast with newly hired CBS news anchor Katie Couric.

Scheduled to kick off the American Cancer Society's statewide, $25-million colon cancer awareness campaign, Couric's stop also was the first in a six-city "listening tour," featuring a private town hall meeting with about 80 local residents and a morale-building visit with the local affiliate's staff.

For most, it was a rare, in-person glimpse of the former Today show star as she prepares for a groundbreaking debut in September as the first permanent, female solo anchor of a network newscast - guiding the CBS Evening News as lead anchor, managing editor, 60 Minutes contributor and primary face of CBS News.

For Couric, the opportunity to marry low-key viewer outreach to a charity she has long supported proved perfect timing.

"People are being nice enough to spend some time with me, talking to me about the issues they care about and how they get their news ... and I wanted to leave something positive behind ... really as a way to say thank you," said Couric, addressing the news media, including cameras from Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition, after her 45-minute speech.

"Katie Couric agreeing to do this was huge," said Dr. Michael Kasper, a South Florida oncologist who is chairman of the board and president of the American Cancer Society Florida division. "We know publicity like this can drive up screening rates. Which means some people may be alive in five years who otherwise might not be."

According to CBS Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman - he joined Couric's whirlwind "Eye on America" tour to Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis, Denver, San Diego and San Francisco this week - the trip was his new anchor's idea, suggested in one of her first meetings with news executives.

"It's important for people to get out of their element," said Couric. "I've lived in New York now for 15 years, and obviously I travel. But the amount of time you really get to spend talking with a cross section of people is pretty limited. ... I really thought this would be a great lesson and great exercise."

Indeed, while Couric spent most of her time talking about the intricacies of cancer research and the deaths of both her husband and sister from the disease, the connection to local affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10 was prominent. Five anchors greeted the audience; later, top anchors Reginald Roundtree and Heather Van Nest opened a question-and-answer session.

"What are you most excited about in going from a morning show to an evening show?" said Couric, reading one question herself. "That would be one word: Sleep ... and maybe bringing back the days when families actually watched the news together and gathered around the (dinner) table."

Couric worked the crowd with an informal, personable ease, smartly dressed in a seersucker pants suit and white blouse, joking about the effect of Florida's humidity on her golden-brown flip. Even as she spoke of nursing husband Jay Monahan through the colon cancer that killed him in 1998, and the death three years later of her sister Emily from pancreatic cancer, the anchor joked about those who call her "America's grief counselor" for her activism, which included a famously televised colonoscopy.

"Talk about getting the real scoop," she said, laughing. "I really was concerned about overexposure on that story."

Couric's tour differs from one her former Today show colleague Bryant Gumbel took when visiting local stations just before the 1999 debut of CBS' Early Show morning program. The network's goal then was to speak with as many news outlets as possible to spread word about the third-place broadcast.

"Obviously, we're trying to take advantage of spending some time with our local station in each city, but I really didn't want this to be a huge promotional thing," Couric said. "It really is just - as advertised - an opportunity to hear from everyday Americans."

The approach mirrored CBS' "soft sell" approach in publicizing Couric's transition, which has begun with ads featuring interim anchor Bob Schieffer touting his replacement and will progress to promotional spots featuring the anchor herself talking about the news, according to the Associated Press.

It remains a delicate balance: despite loads of publicity heralding her Sept. 5 debut, Couric must introduce herself to a traditional news audience which has come to Schieffer's broadcast in growing numbers, while reaching out to new viewers who might be intrigued by her style.

"It's going to be an evolution, not a revolution," promised Couric. "We're going to make some changes. But we're not going to alter it so radically that people are going to be like: 'Oh my God, what is this?' "

The effort worked on Tampa Palms resident Dianne Jones, a 56-year-old colon cancer survivor and Couric fan who introduced the anchor Monday and vowed to watch her on CBS.

"She's very empathetic to survivors, because she's so aware of the battle we go through," said Jones. "People will listen to her. ... and that's just what we need to deliver such a difficult message."

[Last modified July 11, 2006, 05:50:11]

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