ANNOUNCER: From NBC News, this is "Today" with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.
JEFFREY BROWN: This morning, NBC's Katie Couric celebrated her 15th anniversary as co-host of the "Today" show.
MATT LAUER, Co-Host, "Today" Show: ... Katie is now the longest-serving anchor in "Today" show history.
KATIE COURIC, Co-Host, "Today" Show: How about that?
MATT LAUER: That's a lot of mornings, young lady.
KATIE COURIC: I thought I started when it was...
JEFFREY BROWN: And she took the occasion to acknowledge what many viewers already knew.
KATIE COURIC: After listening to my heart and my gut -- two things that have served me pretty well in the past -- I've decided I'll be leaving "Today" at the end of May.
JEFFREY BROWN: Couric didn't get off without some ribbing from co-host Matt Lauer.
MATT LAUER: Also coming up in this half hour...
Did it say anywhere in there about where you're going?
KATIE COURIC: Well, at this point, I'm thinking about opening up a secondhand bookstore in Montana.
MATT LAUER: If you were a guest on this show, I wouldn't let you get away without saying, "So, what are your plans?"
KATIE COURIC: Well, I know it's the worst-kept secret in America, but I'm going to be working on the CBS "Evening News" and "60 Minutes."
MATT LAUER: Congratulations. Congratulations.
KATIE COURIC: And I'm very excited about it, but I can't tell you how much I'm going to miss everybody.
JEFFREY BROWN: Couric now leaves a program she's led to ratings dominance for more than a decade. The "Today" show is the most profitable program in broadcast news, making more than $250 million a year for NBC.
Couric will become the fourth anchor of the CBS "Evening News" in its 45-year history and the first woman to be sole anchor of a network nightly news broadcast. She'll take over a once-storied franchise that has been third in the nightly news ratings for almost a decade...
DAN RATHER, Former Host, "Evening News": And to each of you, courage.
JEFFREY BROWN: ... and experienced a traumatic departure of Dan Rather in the wake of a story on President Bush's National Guard service that relied on documents of dubious authenticity.
BOB SCHIEFFER, Host, "Evening News": Only a very few people have held this job.
JEFFREY BROWN: For the last year, the CBS "Evening News" has been anchored by veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer, who not only steadied the ship, but added 700,000 viewers a night.
The three commercial networks' evening news programs, while still moneymakers, have steadily lost audience over the last 20 years. The programs' viewership has aged considerably, and younger audiences have migrated to the Internet and cable as the number of news sources has exploded.
TOM BROKAW, Former Host, "NBC Nightly News": We've been through a lot together, through...
JEFFREY BROWN: The Couric move is the latest in a series of changes for the network broadcasts. Tom Brokaw left the NBC "Nightly News" at the end of 2004 and was succeeded in a tightly choreographed process by Brian Williams.
PETER JENNINGS, Former Host, ABC "World News Tonight": Finally this evening, a brief note about change...
JEFFREY BROWN: And the death last year of Peter Jennings led ABC to a dual-anchor format headed by Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff. But Woodruff was seriously injured in Iraq in January and remains under treatment. Vargas will leave the program for maternity leave over the summer. ABC has yet to announce how it will deal with those absences.
MEREDITH VIEIRA, Co-Host, "The View": Hello, everybody, and welcome to "The View."
JEFFREY BROWN: As for the "Today" show, it's been widely reported that Meredith Vieira, a one-time network correspondent and now a co-host of "The View" on ABC, will replace Couric. That deal has not yet been finalized.
And more on all this now, from Andrew Lack, former president of NBC and of NBC News, where he oversaw programs including the "Nightly News," "Meet the Press," and the "Today" show. He's now chairman of Sony BMG Music Entertainment.
And Jane Hall, a professor of journalism at American University and former media reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She also analyzes media coverage as a panelist on the "FOX News Watch" program.
And Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, a weekly publication that monitors and provides research on broadcast network news programs.
And welcome to all of you.
Mr. Lack, starting with you, why Katie Couric? What does she bring that CBS sees itself as needing?
ANDREW LACK, Former President and CEO of NBC: Oh, she's first-rate. I think everyone would agree with that. She's a very experienced, very thoughtful broadcaster. And she would be an asset with any news organization. NBC shown, with her extraordinary achievements on the "Today" show, and I expect she'll have a great run at CBS.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Tyndall, what's your reaction to the Couric announcement? Does it matter who is in the anchor chair?
ANDREW TYNDALL, Publisher of the Tyndall Report: I think the importance of the network anchors is -- I'm sorry; I'm getting some feedback.
The importance of the network anchors is exaggerated, in terms of who sits there on the nightly basis at 6:30. The nightly newscasts are, in essence, mediums to the correspondents to file reports. And the anchor's job is really just to link them together. So who sits in that chair at 6:30 at night on one network or another doesn't really make that much difference to the actual journalism that the viewers see.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Jane Hall?
JANE HALL, American University: I disagree with Andrew Tyndall. I think that there's symbolic meaning to the fact that this will be the first time a woman has done this alone.
I go back to the L.A. Times covering the story 10 years ago when Connie Chung and Dan Rather had a shotgun marriage that was not a good situation. And these anchors, especially, God forbid, there is a Katrina, there is a 9/11, there's some other incident -- her ability, Katie Couric's ability to go live, I think, is one reason why CBS has brought her in.
The newscast itself is 22 minutes. It's fairly constraining. It will be interesting to see if they put live news in there with her. But I think the symbolic importance is that a woman is doing this alone and that this is something that they hope will bring fresh and new viewers to the CBS newscast.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lack, let me let you have a chance at that one. It's been a long time -- no, go ahead.
ANDREW LACK: No, I agree with Jane's comments. And I would add that -- I think Andrew would know this -- that Katie comes over with the managing editor's title, which to some people may not seem important on the face of it.
But, in fact, the managing editor, along with the executive producer, sets what stories go in that broadcast; how much time each of those stories gets; the balance and sensibility of the program; how many stories; how long on each story.
Yes, the lead is often obvious, but the rest of the program is discretionary, and Katie will influence that agenda. And that's key in that role.
So it isn't just a presenter who links the stories together. It's an editor who decides on a nightly basis what is important in the day's news and what do we want to spend as much time as we can on that informs the American public on a nightly basis.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Tyndall, do you see changes in the nightly news programs themselves that have led to a changing role for the anchor?
ANDREW TYNDALL: Well, you said in your introductory piece that the nightly newscasts are in the middle of a decades-long period of decline in audience. What's really interesting that's happened in the last couple of years is that all three of the broadcast networks have seen finally a way in which they can grow, rather than continue to shrink.
And what they've discovered is that their content that they have on the nightly news each night is very well-suited, indeed, to providing video on demand in an online format to people who want to watch the news whenever they want to watch it and not have to be at home at 6:30 at night.
This gives them an admirable opportunity to attract the younger audience that they've lost. And I think getting the produced pieces by the correspondents that are at the moment filed only on the nightly news, being able to get them on your iPod, or on your cell phone, or on your computer at work, is the way forward for these news organizations.
And I think that future is much less dependent on an anchor than a nightly newscast is.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, Jane Hall, as we said in our set-up piece, the three networks have all gone through changes. They've all chosen three different approaches here to address, I think, some of the things that Mr. Tyndall is talking about.
JANE HALL: Well, and, you know, CBS, unlike NBC under Andrew Lack, did not develop a cable network. ABC, NBC have cable operations and were there earlier. CBS has had to go it alone, so they can't amortize their cost as well, but they now have Web sites, they now have other aspects.
I just disagree. I think that, for local news, the anchor is important. I think that this will probably help the new producer of the CBS morning show, Steve Friedman, who was the producer at the "Today" show.
I think that it's seen as a network-wide symbol, and this is a person that the local news affiliates want to have come talk to. Local news is a big profit center. This thing cuts a lot of different ways, I think, beyond the 22-minute newscast.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lack, someone that our viewers know well, Robert MacNeil, was asked about this Couric appointment. And I read it in a wire story this morning. And he said, "The question is" -- and I'll get to pose it to you -- "will her presence remake the broadcast along the lines of the personality she has cultivated at the 'Today' show or will the 'Evening News' remake her on-air personality?"
What do you think?
ANDREW LACK: Well, Katie is far more serious than, arguably, there is an inference in that comment, that she'll, you know, be tangoing with Antonio Banderas or something because she was seen on the "Today" show doing that yesterday or last week.
I think Katie sees what the mission is of those programs, the CBS "Evening News," NBC "Nightly News." She'll take that mission very seriously. But she will also bring her own persona to the program, in that she has views, with respect to what are the important stories of the day and how to present them.
She has a voice, and that voice is heard in the writing of the program. It's heard, as I say, in the story selection. But the mission, in terms of the seriousness of the broadcast, is not going to be diluted.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jane Hall?
JANE HALL: Yes, I just want to say, I think there has been some sexism, not in Robert MacNeil's comments, but someone else who is a former CBS producer said: She won't be doing the tango. You know, the job doesn't call for that.
Well, nobody said Tom Brokaw couldn't graduate from the "Today" show to the "Evening News" anchor because he had maybe done a lightweight cooking segment. I mean, I think she came on as a perky -- that was the word that was used about her -- 15 years ago.
She's still a sprightly person, but she has grown. And I think that it's an interesting dichotomy that there's still this attitude that she is not serious. She's interviewed every president we've had in the last 15 years and a lot of other things.
JEFFREY BROWN: But I think -- and I didn't get to talk to Robert about this, so I won't put words in his mouth.
JANE HALL: Well, I don't think his comments were negative.
JEFFREY BROWN: But what I think he was getting at, or what I read in it, was the notion that the age -- is the age of the omniscient anchor past, in some sense, where there might be more of an interactivity perhaps between the anchor and the audience, a different sort of approach?
JANE HALL: Well, I think he's speaking to the interesting question. If she's known for being great in live news, are they going to do live-to-tape pieces? It's not that often that you're going to want to break out of that format.
And as I say breaking news, I think they'll go for hours. But that to me is the question. I haven't gotten an answer yet from the people I talked to at CBS as to how they plan to use their talents and how they plan to -- so that, I think, is a very interesting question. Can you go live in a 22-minute broadcast and do what she's been known for doing best?
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Mr. Tyndall, the head of CBS, Les Moonves, got a lot of attention last year when he said in an article that he was talking about the need to shake up the news division.
He said, quote, "We have to break the mold in news. We don't have a choice." He said, "I want to bomb the whole building," suggesting a real large shake-up.
Do you think he's done it with this move? Do you think that more needs to be done, that we will see some really large changes to the network news programs in the coming years?
ANDREW TYNDALL: I'm really impressed with what's happened at CBS in the last 18 months with the changes that were made there. And all of those changes would be better characterized as righting the ship rather than detonating the building.
I think Bob Schieffer has done an admirable job as anchor. The morale at CBS is clearly higher than it's been for ages. I think the replacement of the news president, Andrew Hayward, by Sean McManus was a productive move.
I think that Mr. Moonves thought that the situation -- he didn't really trust the troops that he had working for him in the building. And he thought that more radical changes needed to be made than events have shown in the last 18 months.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Lack, what do you think about the future and blowing-up-the-building concept of network news?
ANDREW LACK: Yes, I think Andrew is right about that. I think the last 18 months or the last -- excuse me, the last few months have demonstrated that a change in leadership in the company or the program and the move here with Katie Couric, they have a view of stabilizing the broadcast and moving it forward. They did so quite nicely with Bob Schieffer over the last nine months, and Katie will build on that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it possible, Mr. Lack, though, that given some of the things that Mr. Tyndall was talking about, changes in the way people get their news, that the age of the nightly newscast has come and gone or will soon be gone?
ANDREW LACK: Well, there are 20 or 25 million people watching it now, so it seems to me over the next few years that audience isn't going to disappear. I agree that a younger audience will assemble on the Internet, get their news in lots of different new ways on new platforms that the CBS "Evening news" will provide.
But in the next two, three years, I still think that audience of 20 to 25 million people will be there for these evening news broadcasts. That's a large number, by anybody's definition. And that audience is an influential audience.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Tyndall? Go ahead.
ANDREW TYNDALL: The other thing, Andrew, is that it turns out that the best material that will be the building blocks for news on the online, of all the material that's produced by the news divisions, is the material that's on the nightly newscasts.
So, rather than an online future marking the demise of the nightly newscast as a format, actually the nightly news as a format is the best steppingstone to an online future.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and we just have 30 seconds. Jane Hall, you were telling me before we started that most of your students do not watch the nightly news.
JANE HALL: Most of my students are not as reverential towards the nightly news which I grew up on. They do watch it. They do watch "The Daily Show." They are interested in opinion. They are not as interested in the almighty anchor, the omniscient anchor.
I mean, I think that that line between opinion and news -- they watch Jon Stewart. They read WashingtonPost.com. They are grazers of news. And they have not grown into the tradition the way I did.
But I think that's partially a function of time. They're not home when these shows are on. And I think that their death -- the reports of their death have been exaggerated. Cable gets all the attention, but a cable show cumulatively gets -- the networks and cable gets cumulatively huge audience. And the broadcast networks are still getting, as Andy Lack said, a large audience.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jane Hall, Andrew Tyndall, and Andrew Lack, thank you all very much.