Checking in with Couric, Viera and O’Donnell


A year ago, CBS announced that Katie Couric would take a seat behind the Evening News desk, making her the first female network news anchor.

Couric’s pioneering new gig set off a chain reaction of job movement for women in the broadcast industry. Her cozy spot next to Matt Lauer on the Today couch went to Meredith Vieira, and Vieira’s perch at the head of the table on The View went to Rosie O’Donnell (after a nasty bout of she said–she said-she said between O’Donnell, Star Jones Reynolds and View den mother Barbara Walters).

So what has become of the female-centric TV shakeup of last summer?

After an initial boost, ratings flattened and then dropped for Couric. She regularly gets trounced by her white-guy competition, NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charlie Gibson, and in this month’s More magazine she admits

that she’s “still getting her sea legs.” (She also recently got a new executive producer, a telling sign of the show’s current state of affairs.)

And while Couric helped Today consistently lead the ratings during her 15 years on the show, Vieira hasn’t connected with the audience nearly as well. Apparently, viewers would rather watch ABC news fox Diane Sawyer interview women in Afghanistan on Good Morning America than see Vieira ice skate clumsily with Will Ferrell. (Personally, it’s the killer combo of Sawyer’s legs and former sportscaster Robin Roberts’ smooth talkin’ that closes the deal for me on GMA.)

O’Donnell, on the other hand, has dramatically spiked ratings on The View while simultaneously becoming Fox News Enemy No. 1 with her rants against the Bush administration, the war and anything else that sets her off on a given day. But love her or hate her, she grabs headlines and viewers. The show’s ratings and the host’s cryptic pseudo-haiku blog posts are now at an all-time high. And housewives all over the country are hearing how O’Donnell makes sex dates with her wife, which is simultaneously revolutionary and icky.

Why has O’Donnell has thus far succeeded where Couric and Vieira have not? Maybe because The View has not only a conversational format, but also a mostly female audience. Slate‘s Rebecca Dana suggests that some viewers just plain don’t like a woman in charge. (Which, she argues, does not bode well for Hillary Clinton‘s presidential campaign.) In times of war, so the story goes, people would rather turn to what they know — the grave, informed tones of a white man, a la Walter Cronkite — rather than the gentler tones of a woman. (Speak for yourselves … um … people.)

Another argument is that kids these days just don’t watch evening network news broadcasts anymore, in the same way that they don’t buy newspapers: Everything we need to know is online, and it’s faster, cheaper and more direct.

Whatever the reasons for their failure to catch fire, Couric’s and Vieira’s corporate bosses are sticking with them. Couric, for her $60-mil-over-five-years part, says she “never really obsessed over ratings” and just wants to “turn out a quality newscast” (Whether berating John and Elizabeth Edwards is “quality” journalism is up for debate this week.) Vieira admits she’s “still in the process of getting comfortable,” and hopes the numbers will wax as her uneasiness wanes. Meanwhile, O’Donnell and her bully pulpit orations show no signs of slowing The View‘s ratings.

But you never know — the viewing public is fickle, disloyal and in need of constant stimulation. And it’s composed of, don’t forget (as if you could), the same people who are keeping Sanjaya on American Idol week after week.

(by contributing blogger Anna Wahrman)

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