Katie Couric: The first lady of prime time

After decades of gravel-voiced men, flagship news in America gets its first woman anchor
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In an earlier, more optimistic moment in the history of American broadcasting, the arrival of Katie Couric at the helm of the CBS Evening News might have been a genuine coup. She is, after all, the first woman to anchor a prime-time news show on a US network, an established superstar of the airwaves taking up the mantle once worn by the mighty Walter Cronkite.

Couric, though, is no Cronkite. For the past 15 years, she has been the smiling face of breakfast television on NBC's Today show, projecting an irrepressible gal-next-door image as she interviewed presidents, danced with Antonio Banderas and underwent a straight-to-camera colonoscopy to raise awareness about the cancer that killed her husband eight years ago.

There's nothing about Couric, in fact, that remotely resembles the sober, serious, fearless tradition of public-service news gathering established at CBS after the Second World War by Ed Murrow and his generation. That's not her function, and it's not the reason she is being paid $15m a year to address the American people for 22 minutes a day, Monday to Friday.

Rather, Couric's job is to try to breathe new life into what has become a moribund broadcasting form. The nightly network news, once the flagship enterprise of American broadcasting, has lost half its audience in the past 25 years, as cable stations such as CNN and Fox, and the internet, have transformed and greatly accelerated the way news is consumed.

Its average audience age has climbed to around 60, budgets and advertising revenues have plummeted, and young people are much more interested in the spoof newscasts hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. As Leslie Moonves, the head of CBS, said a few months ago: ''We've got to move forward or else the people watching our evening news are going to be dead, and there's going to be nobody there to replace them.''

Hence the arrival of Couric - easy on the eyes, easy-going personality, cheery but not inane, smart but not threatening. Network executives are hoping she'll prove to be the miracle solution, shaking up the very paradigm of evening news broadcasts and creating a whole new audience for a less newsy, less serious, more lifestyle-oriented show.

Sceptics, though, might be inclined to characterise her less as a saviour, and more as the pretty nurse who shows up to hold the hand of a geriatric relative whose life is slipping away.

The first couple of shows garnered mixed reviews, as critics tried to work out what kind of hybrid beast Couric was creating. Hard news, as previously advertised, took a back seat to more discursive, if not necessarily lighter, items - reporting from Afghanistan that focused as much on the gung-ho female reporter in her burqa as it did on what was happening, an amiable interview with President Bush, a straight-to-camera guest editorial slot called Free Speech and, at the very light end, an item on the first pictures of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes's baby.

Couric herself was showcased the way only network executives know best. The first newscast opened with a full body shot of her standing up, to show off her legs. Her first interview, with the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, had those legs and high-heeled shoes prominentlyon display, in front of her subject.

Such camera angles left media feminists less than thrilled. Maureen Dowd commented in The New York Times: "The sad truth is, women only get to the top of places like the network evening news and Hollywood after those places are devalued."

What has most certainly not been devalued is the hype machine that has accompanied Couric's elevation. Her debut was trailed by six months of announcements, doctored publicity shots to make her look younger, taller and thinner, and endless analysis in the media of everything from her wardrobe and her make-up to her dating history since the death of her husband. If ever there were proof that news and celebrity-driven entertainment were blending into one, this was it.

Couric herself, though, is far from the airhead such breathless coverage might suggest. Katherine Ann Couric was born in 1957, the daughter of a Washington-based journalist for the biggest paper in Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was a sorority girl at the University of Virginia, from where she embarked on a conventional career in television journalism.

A stint as desk assistant at ABC News led to a job as a general assignment reporter for a local station in Florida for a couple of years, before she worked her way back to Washington. She covered the Pentagon for NBC for two years and went to the Middle East for the first Gulf War.

By that stage, however, her talents as a presenter were already being noticed. She enjoyed several guest-slots as co-anchor on the Today show, most notably filling in for, and then supplanting, a pregnant Deborah Norville.

That was the start of her superstardom - a whirl of celebrity interviews, glamorous Manhattan parties and special broadcasts on everything from the Olympics to Harry Potter. She offered an appealing blend of the personal and the political, never more so when she lost her husband and began her cancer work. Her live colonoscopy in 2000 was followed five years later by a live mammogram - initiatives that won her widespread praise and a prestigious Peabody broadcasting award. The death from pancreatic cancer in 2001 of her sister Emily Couric, a state senator from Virginia, made her work in this area even more poignant.

She's the kind of anchor whose fame often eclipses that of her guests. She's been invited to do cameos on the television sitcom Will and Grace, in the Austin Powers movie Goldmember and in the animated children's film Shark Tale, in which she played a lightly fictionalised version of herself, called Katie Current.

Her approach to the CBS anchor job has more closely resembled that of a politician running for office. Earlier this year, she embarked on a six-city "listening tour" to find out what real Americans wanted from their evening news. Since the audiences were handpicked by invitation only, though, it's not clear just how ordinary they were.

Her conclusions? "Sometimes when you watch the evening news, it's all gloom and doom," she told the Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, recently. "Some of it has to be, because the world is a complicated and pretty scary place right now. But there has to be a place for more hopeful stories." Aware that this sounded like a recipe for fluff, she added: "It's not going to be smiley-face, happy news."

Hence the awkward hybrid seen over the past few nights - not unserious reporting, but still heavy on celebrity lifestyle items. Is this the future of broadcast journalism, or proof of its imminent demise? The ratings, at least on the first night, indicated a doubling of CBS's usual evening news audience. Hype, though, is a fickle master. It remains to be seen if the numbers, and Couric's superstar appeal, can hold up over time.