Selling Katie

BYLINE: MARK SCHWED, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: August 26, 2006
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
MEMO: TELEVISION Ran all editions. Info box at end of text.

WPEC-News 12 anchor Liz Quirantes came armed with the tools of her trade: Lipstick? Check.

Makeup? Are you kidding?

Of course, and all by MAC.

Can of hairspray? Got it.

Quirantes was prepped for her 15 minutes of face-time with CBS's $60-million woman - Katie Couric.

Like a hundred other local news anchors from CBS affiliates across the country, Quirantes and co-anchor Curt Fonger flew to New York this month to grill Couric about her Sept. 5 debut as anchor of CBS Evening News.

The sessions were part of the network's plan to lift CBS News out of the ratings cellar for the first time in a decade. Fortunately, Quirantes got Couric at the perfect time - right after she finished lunch. "She was in a good mood," Quirantes says. "Her tummy was full."

It was good timing for Quirantes and Fonger, too: Local anchors flying into New York the next morning got snagged by the increased terror alert and had their makeup confiscated at the airport.

The session was classic Couric, Quirantes said - more a giggly gabfest than stuffy sermon from the mount. The News 12 duo asked Couric how she was going to make CBS Evening News different (she'll bring "new freshness and new perspective"), if she had any worries ("of course") and whether there will be a difference between Katie in the morning and Katie in the evening (she "won't dress up as SpongeBob SquarePants").

Network analyst Andrew Tyndall says all the changes CBS has in store - a new set, a friendlier tone and more - pale in comparison to what the local news stations do to complement Couric.

If local newscasts airing just before the CBS Evening News bump up their ratings, then Couric's numbers will rise, too. "She spent all those years schmoozing with NBC affiliates," Tyndall says. "Now she's got to introduce herself to CBS."

The excellent adventure by Quirantes and Fonger, where their sightseeing was limited to a studio, a green room and a CBS restroom, lasted 13 hours. They were back home by 7 p.m.

The next day, everyone wanted to know the same thing: "What's Katie like?" "She's exactly the same in person as she is on television," Quirantes says. "She is warm, she is friendly, she puts you at ease and makes you feel comfortable and welcome the second she meets you and shakes your hand. That is exactly why she is making the big bucks."
Marketing mania

The purpose of the schmoozing was twofold: To rally the troops behind their new leader and provide the marketing departments with ammo for the most intense and expensive battle for evening news viewers in 23 years - the last time the networks had three new anchors. NBC and ABC - No. 1 and No. 2 in the national ratings - are joining the fray, unwilling to give up their share of the 25 million people who watch the evening news each night and the $400 million that advertisers spend to reach them.

Days before Couric's debut, a four-story-tall banner featuring NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, 47, will be unfurled within eyesight of CBS's headquarters. Right next to Williams will be banners of Couric's old friend and her replacement at Today: Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira.

But NBC says that it will be business as usual at the No. 1 network. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel," NBC News president Steve Capus told the New York Observer. "We've got a good thing going right now at Nightly News."

But if what is happening to daytime ratings since Couric's departure is any indication, he might want to rethink that plan. In the last three ratings weeks, Today's lead over ABC's Good Morning America has fallen from 1.1 million to 620,000 to just 380,000.

CBS, trying to cash in on Couric power, is plastering her face on every city bus in New York and flooding the airwaves with $10 million worth of promos. At ABC World News Tonight, Charles Gibson, 63, the oldest of the three new anchors who also just left the morning slot, is being reintroduced in an advertising campaign that touts his experience. "Your Trusted Source" is the slogan.

CBS's top bosses have been holding closed-circuit satellite chats with local station executives, filling them in on the new broadcast. What they know: Couric's desk will be finished in a ginger root maple laminate. She'll spend less time telling people what they may already know and more time on analysis and a segment called "Free Speech," in which regular folks and even comedians will get 90 seconds of airtime to speak their minds. But many details remain secret.

"I'll find out with the rest of America," says Steve Hunsicker, executive news director of WPEC. News 12, which is The Palm Beach Post's news partner, plans to run a story based on Quirantes' and Fonger's interview with Couric during the 6 p.m. broadcast on Sept. 1, then air a series of shorter reports at 5, 5:30 and 6 p.m. on Sept. 5 - right up to the moment Couric makes history as the first woman to become solo anchor of an evening network newscast.

News 12 executives are using Couric's launch to make some major scheduling changes of their own, including the addition of what they say is South Florida's first 7 p.m. local newscast. That means Quirantes and Fonger will do the news before and after Couric's debut.

"It's gonna be like a News 12 sandwich," Quirantes says. To make room for the new newscast, WPEC will push Who Wants to be a Millionaire from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and cancel Family Feud.

The marketing department also plans to air more traditional promos, some featuring Couric in New York and Quirantes and Fonger speaking from their anchor desk in West Palm Beach.

"For us, it's huge," says Craig Davenport, creative services director at WPEC. "This is a promo dream to tie in our anchor talent with someone of the visibility of Katie."
A long way to go

Couric, and WPEC, will need all the help they can get. For 52 years, WPTV-5, the NBC affiliate, has trounced all competitors in the nation's 38th-largest market, with 2.5 million potential viewers in the area.

According to figures from the latest sweeps period in May, 121,000 people watch NBC Nightly News on WPTV, nearly twice the number tuning in to CBS Evening News on WPEC and nearly three times the audience for ABC World News Tonight on WPBF.

Brian Lawlor, WPTV general manager, predicts that even with all the hype and buzz, Couric won't win the night on her debut. "I think there will be some sampling. Heck, I'll probably tune in for a couple seconds to see what the set will look like. But I still like our chances. Her going to CBS doesn't change our product in the evening. It changes our product in the morning. So we are preparing for that."

To that end, on Sept. 13 - the day Vieira starts co-hosting Today - NBC will launch the show in high definition. But it is pure coincidence that WPTV has a brand new morning news set, he says. "We just added a full-time traffic reporter to our staff, and we wound up tearing out our old morning set and having a whole new look."

ABC's Good Morning America, which lost Gibson when he moved to the evening news, also is bringing in some new blood. Chris Cuomo, 36, son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, becomes news anchor, and surfer dude-looking Sam Champion becomes weatherman on Sept. 5, joining Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts in the morning on the same day Couric launches in the evening.

At ABC's local affiliate, WPBF-25, which made a splash two years ago by having three women anchor the afternoon news, no massive promo campaigns are planned. The station already has launched a new newscast at 4 p.m., which also is offered live on the Web.

"Charlie Gibson assuming the anchor chair was no surprise or big thing," explains WPBF news director Joe Coscia. "The Katie thing has been so publicized, we could have Mel Gibson doing the newscast that night, and I think Katie would still get the sampling." But he adds that anytime there is change there is opportunity. "We'll be watching."

As for WPTV's Lawlor, the most comforting part of all the musical chairs in the news business is the viewer reaction so far. "Out in the community, I have had people say, 'I was a big Katie fan. I miss her.' But I have yet to get one e-mail complaining about Meredith. That's the one thing that makes me feel good."

Story courtesy of and copyrighted by The Palm Beach Post

Copyright (c) 2006 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.

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