Dear Les Moonves, I Tried to Warn You!

Dear Les Moonves, I Tried to Warn You! February 8, 2007

Drudge is telling the sad tale of the ratings for CBS Evening News starring with Katie Couric.

Well…I hate to say I told you so. But I did. I’ll try one more time, Mr. Moonves. As Mr. Garfinkle the Deliman used to say in my old neighborhood, “this time, please listen!”

While the rumors were swirling and gaining strength I made it clear, as a news viewer, that hiring Katie Couric for that gig was going to be a costly mistake. Viewers know what they’re talking about, but outside of weird-ling focus groups full of people who will say almost anything because they feel important that someone has asked them questions, the networks never listen to us. We know what we want to see. We know what we don’t like, what we’re not comfortable with, and how we feel about things.

Katie may have had high Q ratings, but she is always-and-forever the Thanksgiving Parade Girl. She’s the Olympics and Royal Weddings Girl. She is not the goto voice for information, reassurance, explanation, or gravitas.

Dan Rather, for all his faults, wrote his own copy if he needed to. He had his own voice and it was – until the last few years – a commendable, professional and credible voice. When the Challenger blew up he was appropriately solemn but still curious, informative, able to take a model of the vessel and talk intelligently with a scientist about what exactly had happened in those moments. He was intellectually spry enough to move from one element of that tragedy to another with seamlessness, gravity and maturity. He was, frankly, Rudy Giuliani on 9/11. It might have been Rather’s finest hour.

Katie could never do that. She has no “voice” of her own on the CBS Evening News because her voice – as evidenced by various ill-advised magazine articles I’ve read over the past few weeks and those blog pieces she has written which were not well vetted – is the voice of the cheerleader married and gone suburban. I doubt she can write her own copy, and I think that makes a world of difference to a broadcaster, because when someone is accustomed to fleshing out a story in one’s own words, one can think on one’s feet, so to speak. If the teleprompter goes awry or the story shifts quickly, one’s synapses are well-stretched and able to fire on demand, so that the whole tone of the broadcast never really dips much.

Right now, if a story shifts, Katie has a teleprompter, a voice in her ear and no freaking clue what she’s supposed to say next: enter the cheerleader. The tone becomes inconsistant, Katie looks trapped and it all starts to remind one uncomfortably of amateur night. No, I’ll go even further, it’ looks like “bloggers doing news!” And that’s pretty bad. One remembers the Challenger disaster and thinks Katie would refer to the falling rocket boosters as “Gi-normous!”

We viewers had the opportunity to watch Lester Holt “do” 9/11 and Katrina. He was remarkable. Smooth, urbane, balanced, thoughtful, a quick study, a great voice, an attractive presence with a really assured, grown-up bearing. You in the press may have watched him but – particularly with Katrina – you were a huge part of the story and losing your heads. You would not have viewed Holt the way the rest of us did, you could not have, or you would have seen how great he was. Women love him; men what to be him. That’s the winning combo, right?

Same with Dehlia Gallagher. We had the chance to watch her “do” the long anticipatory deathwatch of JPII, and the funeral, and the election of Benedict. She was astounding. Her reports were informative, authoritative and gripping. There wasn’t a question put to her that she could not answer intelligently, immediately, succinctly and with humor when appropriate. She’s a real journalist – she writes her own copy and it shows. She’s attractive without looking packaged. Men would love her; women would want to be her.

And the beauty of hiring either or both of them would have been the savings of perhaps ten million dollars a year. CBS could have crowed that it was rebuilding its aging stable of star newscasters by corralling the youngest, best and brightest – “rebuilding the Tiffany News Network by investing in tomorrow’s great broadcasters, today.” Instead…well, instead, you unimaginatively and shallowly served up a recognizable name on a platterful of “glass-ceiling cracked” hype. Having sampled the platter, people are now avoiding it, and the thing is spoiling. Next comes either food poisoning or cockroaches, take your pick.

Because I am a viewer, and because viewers know, I kept suggesting Holt or Gallagher to you, Les (I can call you Les, right?) I hate to sound like a know-it-all because I am pretty much an idiot, but I have really good instincts about this stuff, always have, and either one of these two journalists would be making you proud as hell right now.

When you never hear the world “no,” your perspective becomes warped. You needed to hear from folks like me, instead of the contingent of “yes” people who likely surround you. Network folk live in this insulated little world where they’re surrounded all the time by the same people and you apparently think that is as large as the world – and the hiring pool – gets. You’ve totally lost touch with the viewers. The viewers know and the viewers who offered good advice should perhaps have been listened to. Ahem.

I don’t dislike Katie, btw. I’ve actually grown to like her more since she started at CBS, because I think she’s a gamer and she probably works pretty hard. But she’s the wrong girl in the wrong job and every day – in every manifestation – blogging, the notebook, the expensive broadcast – her weak points and shortcomings become more glaring.

It’s time to “Jane Pauley” Katie – give her some other “Mother of the News” role and bring in Delia Gallagher or Lester Holt.

It’s the last time I’m telling you. And if you could see the look on my face, you’d go clean your room.

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