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The Verdict on Couric

After an unprecedented buildup, the early verdict is in. A sampling of the nation’s television critics and online commentators finds that there is more criticism than praise – and more mixed reviews than anything – for Katie Couric’s feverishly anticipated debut as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” yesterday.

To get a sense of how Couric’s opening night played with the TV punditocracy, the Project for Excellence in Journalism evaluated 43 columns or commentaries — primarily from daily newspapers — that weighed in on the former “Today” host’s inaugural newscast. Overall, 79% of the reviews were either mixed or mostly negative. In raw numbers that translates to 20 mixed, 14 negative and 9 positive.

In fairness to Couric, a good deal of the criticism was aimed less at her and more at the content – or lack thereof – in a program that included pictures of Tom Cruise’s and Katie Holmes’s baby daughter Suri and a segment in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock railed against political polarization while using Hulk Hogan video to make his point.(On a more superficial note, Couric’s wardrobe, a white blazer over a black skirt and top, also attracted its share of comment.)

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The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Storm wrote that “her presence actually gave weight to a blab-filled report that threatened to float away on a cloud of tepid air.”Writing for the online publication Salon, Heather Havrilesky asserted that “the broadcast hit its low point when Couric gushed over the first published pictures of Suri Cruise” and accused the new anchor of “sounding far more like Mary Hart than Tom Brokaw.”

Summing up the general sense among reviewers that Couric herself provided no particularly memorable or distinctive moments, Robert Bianco of USA Today ventured that “It’s hard to see how anything she did on the newscast could possibly have earned a strong reaction either way.” The Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss echoed those sentiments, declaring the newscast to be largely “competent and safe.”

In a bad sign for network, the name of CBS news icon Edward Murrow – whose signature signoff was used to help close Couric’s first show – was invoked in some unflattering reviews. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales wrote that “Some people will say that including the image of Murrow on such a frothy, funsy broadcast as the Couric premier was sacrilege, and that Murrow is spinning in his grave.” Added Matt Zoller Seitz of the Newark Star-Ledger: “Now would normally be the time to evoke the ghost of Edward R. Murrow, but I won’t. He’s suffered enough.”

The more positive reviews found Couric herself to be competent and polished if not necessarily compelling. David Bianculli of the New York Daily News wrote that “She was serious at the start, folksy at the end, and poised and professional throughout.” And Mike Duffy of the Detroit Free Press lauded her ability to project the “same self-assured down-to-earth professionalism” that made her a success in morning television.

Even before her first CBS newscast, Couric’s historic and much-scrutinized transition from morning host to evening anchor at played out much like a high-stakes political campaign, leading the New York Times to compare it to “an image campaign worthy of a presidential candidate.”

The intense media coverage of Couric leading up to Tuesday night’s program helped stoke much speculation about whether CBS’s gamble — reportedly costing $15 million annually in her salary alone — would pay off in ratings and buzz. For those of a sporting bent, The New York Post discovered an online bookie who put Couric’s odds of drawing more than 8.5 million viewers last night at 6.5 to 1. (CBS reported today that the broadcast attracted a whopping 13.59 million viewers, its biggest audience in more than eight years, and easily beat the ABC and NBC newscasts.)

While the network did much to encourage and orchestrate the avalanche of media attention on Couric, CBS News President Sean McManus told the Washington Post last month that he was surprised by the intensity of the media “feeding frenzy” and worried that “the downside is that people are going to be so quick to jump to conclusions after one broadcast.”

Well, that broadcast is over and the first returns are in. And McManus, Couric, and company were probably hoping for a better reception.

Study Design

The thrust of this analysis was to gauge overall evaluation of Couric’s first night, based on a wide range of reviews that appeared across the country in the first 12 hours following the broadcast. To do so, we created a list of outlets likely to run reviews. We began with media outlets that had staffers who were members of the Television Critics Association. That list featured 33 newspapers of varying size, including the 9 of 10 largest circulation dailies in the country. Next, to add depth to the sample, we added the following:

  • The prominent two entertainment trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter.
  • The Associated Press, whose reviews are carried in multiple smaller publications across the country
  • Time magazine, to represent the Newsweekly genre.
  • Six online-only outlets: five blogs (selected by searching the blog-tracking Technorati web site for references to Couric and randomly choosing five entries) and Salon.

This resulted in a total of 43 different outlets.

Story Procurement and Coding: Beginning at 7 A.M. the day following the evening broadcast, coders went to the websites of each of the outlets. They searched for either Couric or the name of the outlet’s television critic.

Each review was read from start to finish and analyzed to determine whether the review overall was mostly positive, mostly negative or mostly mixed. (Coders analyzed each separate assertion and also weighed more heavily the opening and closing paragraphs of each review.) For the purpose of this study, we did not differentiate between Katie Couric and the broadcast she anchored. If a reviewer was largely critical of aspects of the newscast, but spared Couric herself, the review itself was considered negative.

Note: Although the Associated Press story is not written as a traditional review, it was included because it was carried in numerous outlets and made a crucial subjective point in telling readers that Couric showed viewers “she wasn’t afraid to take some chances.”

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