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Couric presents a softer vision

Her debut, a mix of charm and some surprises, wins praise of fans.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 6, 2006


She promised an evolution instead of a revolution.

And Katie Couric delivered Tuesday night in her debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News, offering a slick broadcast finely focused on her offhand charm, a fluffier take than usual on the day's news events and a few quirky gimmicks designed to pique viewers' attention.

"We're trying a few new things here on the CBS Evening News," Couric told viewers while introducing a new commentary segment dubbed "Free Speech," speaking from a newly built set awash in deep blues and auburn hues.

And while there were some surprises - Couric had no memorable closing line (viewers were encouraged to suggest one online) and in-your-face documentarian Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock provided the first "Free Speech" commentary - Couric and company offered a surprisingly bland mix of items that seemed focused on a softer, warmer vision of the evening news.

But one fan, former CBS Evening News anchor Connie Chung, had a different view.

"She looked like she had been doing the CBS Evening News for 25 years," said Chung, who spent some time Tuesday at a small party held for Couric by family and old friends at a New York hotel after the newscast.

"Particularly after Labor Day weekend ... there's not as much going on," noted Chung, who shared the CBS anchor desk with Dan Rather from 1993 to 1995. "I'm hoping critics and viewers give her as much time as they have given other evening news anchors and judge her broadcast accordingly."

Couric's inaugural broadcast started with an exclusive report from chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, a rising star who visited a Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. Other topics included President Bush's speech on terrorism and a possible new source of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Couric deftly handled the dilemma over what she might wear on the newscast, debuting in a black shirt and short black skirt with a tasteful, white jacket - walking a fine line between businesslike and alluring (and yes, she did show her legendary legs twice: while interviewing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and at the end of the newscast, sitting next to the desk).

What we didn't see were any live talkbacks to correspondents in the field - which Couric's predecessor, interim anchor Bob Schieffer, became known for. We also didn't see much real news - there were stories on Vanity Fair's cover shot of Tom Cruise's baby Suri (curiously omitted from the network's Internet simulcast), a too-short interview with Friedman, a bit on famous anchorman signoffs through history (allowing Couric to sidestep presenting her own), and a story on a guy who helps get portraits painted of orphans in Third World countries.

"It was an entirely feminine, fluffy, sweet broadcast," said Elaina Featherstone, a 21-year-old senior majoring in communications and journalism at the University of Tampa, who was torn between discomfort with the show's softened tone and a desire to see Couric succeed as the networks' first solo female anchor.

"At the end (of the newscast) she was sitting on the end of her desk with her legs crossed," Featherstone said. "Of course, she's got great legs and everyone wants to see them. But on her first broadcast? You would never see that with a male anchor."

CBS's online elements, including a brief video clip of her interview with Friedman called "Eye to Eye," a midday video update on the stories planned for the newscast and a blog with an inaugural commentary on how Labor Day reminds her of fresh starts, echoed the newscast's softer theme.

It was a combination that worked for Gloria Giunta, 55, a volunteer for the American Cancer Society who met Couric during the anchor's July "listening tour" stop in Clearwater.

"I think she made the news human ... she changed my outlook on it," Giunta said. "My husband is the one who usually wants to watch the news. ... I don't want to watch the blood and guts. I probably listened a little closer, because it was more interesting to me."

 

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

"Couric was subdued throughout the broadcast, perhaps a little spooked by all the fuss over her appointment. The network's readiness campaign - the focus groups, the listening tour of America, the wardrobe questions - prompted massive attention and some snickering. CBS executives complained that Couric is being held to a cattier standard."

- ALESSANDRA STANLEY, New York Times

 

"There's a bit of discord here, since America never really wanted swashbuckling or sweat in its girls next door. Couric has done well by mining that image, and Tuesday night she seemed no different. She was a genial viewer stand-in, even during a slightly bewildering interview of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. It wasn't anything Bob Schieffer couldn't have done, but then, Schieffer isn't a brand."

- JOANNA WEISS, Boston Globe

 

"A nation once referred to the beloved Walter Cronkite as Uncle Walter. But no matter how much viewers come to like and trust anchorwoman Couric, we'll bet no one ever calls her Aunt Katie."

- MIKE DUFFY, Detroit Free Press

 

"Couric's long been annoyed at being called perky, but perhaps quirky would be a better word for how she ended the broadcast. She told viewers she hadn't figured out what her signoff would be, and asked them for their ideas. That call for ideas came after she showed a montage of closing words from a variety of fictional and real talking heads, including Edward R. Murrow and Cronkite."

- MAUREEN RYAN, Chicago Tribune