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Who'll follow Couric?

| Saturday, April 12, 2008

CBS News may need to hang a "help wanted" sign in the window.

With Katie Couric and top executives signaling that her difficult run in the anchor chair is likely to end after the November elections, the network has few in-house candidates for the coveted post. CBS's depleted bench was a key reason Chairman Les Moonves raided a rival network, luring Couric from NBC with a $15 million-a-year package.

"They never had that Roone Arledge touch," said former ABC producer Emily Rooney, referring to the big-spending impresario at her old network. "He knew how to bring that talent into the tent."

But industry analyst Andrew Tyndall said times have changed and that Moonves would hurt morale if he went outside the network for the second straight time. "The flaw in hiring Couric is that the Roone Arledge era of celebrity journalists is over," he said. "You don't throw money at a big name and make the appeal of the broadcast be top down."

One possible successor at the third-place "CBS Evening News" would be Harry Smith, 56, co-host of CBS's "Early Show" and a frequent Couric substitute. But the network may be reluctant to remove him from the long-struggling morning show, where Moonves' wife, Julie Chen, is also co-host. Two longer shots would be "60 Minutes" correspondent Scott Pelley or Russ Mitchell, who anchors the Sunday night news.

The last time Moonves was faced with this dilemma, in 2005, he tapped "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer, who boosted the evening news ratings during his 18-month tenure as interim anchor. Schieffer, 71, recently postponed at management's request a retirement planned for year's end, but he would be a temporary choice at best.

The period of upheaval began when CBS forced Dan Rather out of the anchor chair following the debacle over his 2004 report on President Bush's National Guard service. A New York state judge on Thursday threw out four counts -- including charges of fraud -- in Rather's lawsuit against the network. Rather alleged that CBS had made him a "scapegoat" for the Guard story and had forced him to apologize. The remaining three counts turn on whether the network gave Rather sufficient work at "60 Minutes" after he lost the anchor job.

"What's left is a garden-variety contract dispute," CBS lawyer Jim Quinn said. "We feel pretty strongly we're going to be able to show that clearly we lived up to the obligation we had."

But Martin Gold, an attorney for Rather, called that assessment "simply inaccurate," saying in a statement that the ruling "leaves in place the entire essence of Mr. Rather's lawsuit against CBS and Viacom ... including his $70 million claim for compensatory and punitive damages."

Rather's dominance of the CBS News culture over a quarter-century was such that few natural successors emerged. CBS was damaged by years of budget-cutting under a series of owners dating to Laurence Tisch in the 1980s. And the network had no farm team, with only one hit news show, "60 Minutes," where turnover was so limited that its best-known star is Mike Wallace, 89.

Other attempts at star hiring flopped: Connie Chung flamed out as Rather's co-anchor in 1995, while Bryant Gumbel abandoned the "Early Show" in 2002.

Should CBS decide to import its next anchor, the complications range from internal friction, as happened in Couric's case, to the challenge of introducing an outsider to the audience. ABC's current anchor, Charlie Gibson, by contrast, grew up there, while Brian Williams worked at NBC for nearly a decade after serving as a local CBS anchor.

Judy Muller, a CBS radio and television correspondent in the 1980s, said such CBS veterans as Smith, Pelley and Mitchell would be solid choices and that Couric, who shone so brightly on "Today," had been "miscast" as an evening news anchor. She said CBS must cater to the core nightly news viewers -- those over 50 -- even though it is "a dying audience."

"In this country people prefer anchors who have reporting cred," said Muller, now an associate professor at the University of Southern California. CBS executives "were looking for glamour and were surprised when that didn't work."

Among those whom CBS is said to covet most is Anderson Cooper, 40, who hosts CNN's 10 p.m. show and moderated several presidential debates this season. Cooper, who doubles as a part-time "60 Minutes" correspondent, specializes in field reporting and brings a touch of celebrity as Gloria Vanderbilt's son.

Another key name being bandied about by insiders, agents and media analysts is David Gregory, 37, NBC's White House correspondent and an MSNBC anchor. Other NBC stars include Lester Holt, 49, the weekend co-host of "Today," and Ann Curry, 51, the "Today" news anchor and frequent substitute for Williams. But several analysts doubted that CBS would turn to another woman.

John Roberts, 51, a longtime CBS correspondent once viewed as Rather's heir apparent, is now co-host of CNN's "American Morning." He left CBS after Moonves passed him over.

CBS last week axed a number of high-profile veteran anchors at the local stations it owns as part of a cost-cutting drive. "With these huge corporate cutbacks, you can't have one person pulling in $15 million," said Rooney, who hosts a show about the media on Boston's WGBH-TV. She added: "Charlie Gibson isn't necessarily a superstar; he's super good. They need someone who really knows the news."

While no final decision on Couric's status will be made for several months, CBS executives were not denying that she is likely a lame-duck anchor. But they hope to keep her in the corporate family if she leaves the evening news -- perhaps with a syndicated talk show -- because the network would be contractually bound to pay her considerable salary for another 2 1/2 years.

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