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Newsrooms Grapple with Appropriate Level of Personality

September 6, 2006 at 6:40 PM EST
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KATIE COURIC, CBS News: Tonight, it was the first…

JEFFREY BROWN: On CBS last night, it’s safe to say the news
was not the star of the evening. Instead, it was the star who was the news. After
months of anticipation and relentless promotion, Katie Couric took over the
anchor chair on “The CBS Evening News.”

With a nod to the past, the program opened with the voice of
Walter Cronkite, introducing Couric.

WALTER CRONKITE, Former CBS Anchor: This is “The CBS
Evening News with Katie Couric.”

KATIE COURIC: Hi, everyone. I’m very happy to be with you
tonight. For many Americans…

JEFFREY BROWN: The newscast ran the gamut from hard news…

KATIE COURIC: But in the war on terror…

JEFFREY BROWN: … a lead report on a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan…

LARA LOGAN, CBS News: Our tense journey into Taliban
terribly…

JEFFREY BROWN: … by foreign correspondent Lara Logan, to
an interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, to softer fare, a
commentary segment called “Free Speech.”

MORGAN SPURLOCK, Director: It seems like, every time I turn
on the TV, some reputable news source is telling me how we’re a nation divided.

JEFFREY BROWN: And later, a first look at the heretofore
unseen baby born to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.

Couric’s debut easily won the ratings war last night among
the three network evening newscasts, and CBS is counting on the appeal of her
personality to continue to win viewers, the principal reason, after all, the
network is paying her a reported $15 million a year.

KATIE COURIC: I’m Katie Couric. Thank you so much for
watching, and I hope to see you tomorrow night.

A media experiment

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is there anything more to say about theKatie Couric phenomenon?

Well, interestingly, to us, some media watchers see it aspart of a larger and evolving media universe. One is William Powers, whorecently wrote a piece called "The Personality Test" in his columnfor The National Journal. He joins us from Boston.

William Powers, why don't you first explain what you mean bypersonality?

WILLIAM POWERS, The National Journal: Well, what I wastalking about, Jeffrey, was the idea that, in this vast product launch that CBSwas doing last night, they were participating in a grand experiment that'shappening across the media today, which asks the question, can you sell newswith personality?

Personality was the key product being launched last night,Katie Couric's personality. And we tend to think of this as a networkcommodity, but it's actually something that's happening all across media, asall these competing news outlets struggle for audience. There are millions,literally, of news outlets now, if you include the blogs. And personality isjust a crucial factor in the sales job.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, start with last night. What did you see? Putit in terms of your thesis on personality.

WILLIAM POWERS: Well, it was all about Katie, obviously.

I mean, the months-long run-up and the listening tour thatshe did, and really the show itself, it was very much, how is Katie going todo? And they were attempting to deliver the news to us and to draw us asviewers on the wings of personality.

And, if you watched it, you know it was an enjoyable showfrom that perspective. It was a lot of drama in whether she was going to pullit off. She did pull it off, I think, basically. As many critics noted today,there were some flaws.

But I think the longer-term question is, in this day and ageof so many news outlets, and this explosion of the media all over the place,where we all have so many choices, can one personality, or a personality-driven product, like "The CBS Evening News," really draw in the kindof audience the network news traditionally has drawn for decades? And the juryis still out on that.

How much is too much?

JEFFREY BROWN: The larger context that you're talking about hereis different media competing against each other -- that is, network againstnetwork, in this case...

WILLIAM POWERS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... but with all other kinds of newtechnology and changing behavior among audience, right?

WILLIAM POWERS: Right. Exactly.

I mean, personality, broadly defined, it's not just aboutthe movie star qualities of someone like Katie Couric. Under the heading ofpersonality, I would include such things as ideology. You know, people who arevery ideological, pundits who appear on TV, on cable and so forth, have bigpersonalities.

And there's an assumption in many corners of the mediatoday, that the more personality you use in the product, the more you're goingto draw people, the better your numbers, and the more you're going to succeed.

I argued in the column -- and I actually feel personallythat there's a fallacy there -- that, long range, I think personality bumps upagainst a limit, and that people, many people, are driven away by too much personality.

The best evidence is cable, cable news, which has neverapproached the numbers of the networks, and perhaps never will. And, on cable,it's a more personality-driven product.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, then, it becomes calibrating the right amountof personality.

WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly.

And that's what's fascinating to me in this experiment onCBS and beyond CBS, the idea that people are attempting to adjust how muchpersonality people want. How much should we should we foist on them, in anattempt to draw them in?

And it will be interesting to watch, for example, the Katieexperiment. How much will she lean on her personality? How much will the showlean on her personality? How much will they bring in other big personalities tohelp sell the product? We have already heard about some of the commentatorsbeing big-brand names.

And we will see. Will people be drawn to it? I think, youknow, there's a lot of doubt, in my mind, that it will work, again, becausepeople have so many questions. And many of the options open to us now,including wire stories on our computers, blogs, are less personality driven.

And, for many people, including me, that's very attractive. Ithink a little personality goes a long way.

Analyzing the changing media

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have mentioned blogs a couple oftimes.

WILLIAM POWERS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we have done stories about newspapers introuble that are trying to figure out how to reach people with a particularlocal personality.

What do you see media doing to break out of the mold?

WILLIAM POWERS: Well, they're all taking differentapproaches. I mean, if you look at the blogs, there are blogs that arebasically subject-driven blogs, blogs where it's all about the news happeningin a particular city or on a particular topic or within a particularprofession. And the person doing the blog perhaps injects a little bit ofpersonality around the edges, but it's not about that person.

And, at the other end of the spectrum, there are blogs thatare completely personality-driven. There are blogs that are all about attitude,whether it's sarcasm or jadedness, you name it. There are just blogs of allstripes. And, across that spectrum, I think you see this dynamic happening.

At the moment, the personality-driven blogs are getting,like Katie Couric, a lot of attention. But I don't know what kind of stayingpower they're going to have. I do think that the news-driven blogs, the blogsthat let the story be the main story, for me, have more staying power.

And interestingly, you know, in the network tradition, thenetwork news tradition, that was how it worked. That's the Walter Cronkitetradition. It wasn't mostly about Cronkite's personality. It was about thestory. He injected himself very rarely into the news. And people liked that. Andmaybe we're living in a different culture now, and times have changed. I thinkthis Couric experiment will tell us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I was going to ask you.

I mean, presumably, CBS did all kinds of testing in...

WILLIAM POWERS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: .. bringing Katie Couric out, as do all thenetworks. So, they must be finding that people want this kind of personality toput forward in their newscasts.

WILLIAM POWERS: They do.

You know, I think people are sort of trained byentertainment, by the shows they watch, the reality shows, you know, whetherit's "The Amazing Race" or "Survivor" or whatever, to wantthese personalities sort of looming large in their lives. And, perhaps, whenthey answer questions like that about the news, that's what they say.

But I really think, in terms of integrating the news intoour lives, and having a daily diet of keeping up with what's happening in theworld, I think, again, too much personality can become overwhelming andfatiguing. And, really, you want to move away from it. There are options thatare much more appealing to a lot of people, you know, public radio, this show.

You know, there are so many less personality-driven newsoutlets that have followings. And I think those -- that following is going togrow for a lot of those outlets. And I'm not sure that the personality-drivenmodel, which I think is part of what is CBS is doing, we have only seen one dayof it, so, you know, we can't say for sure -- but I think that model may beflawed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, thanks for the plug. And wewill all keep watching.

JEFFREY BROWN: William Powers...

WILLIAM POWERS: My pleasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... thanks a lot.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you.