|Originally Aired: September 6, 2006
Newsrooms Grapple with Appropriate Level of Personality
|Prominent news anchors are sometimes treated as celebrities by their viewers and the media. A media columnist examines what level of personality and opinion is appropriate in news reporting. |
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
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 the
Katie Couric phenomenon?
Well, interestingly, to us, some media watchers see it as
part of a larger and evolving media universe. One is William Powers, who
recently wrote a piece called "The Personality Test" in his column
for The National Journal. He joins us from Boston.
William Powers, why don't you first explain what you mean by
WILLIAM POWERS, The National Journal: Well, what I was
talking about, Jeffrey, was the idea that, in this vast product launch that CBS
was doing last night, they were participating in a grand experiment that's
happening across the media today, which asks the question, can you sell news
Personality was the key product being launched last night,
Katie Couric's personality. And we tend to think of this as a network
commodity, but it's actually something that's happening all across media, as
all these competing news outlets struggle for audience. There are millions,
literally, of news outlets now, if you include the blogs. And personality is
just a crucial factor in the sales job.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, start with last night. What did you see? Put
it 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 that
she did, and really the show itself, it was very much, how is Katie going to
do? And they were attempting to deliver the news to us and to draw us as
viewers on the wings of personality.
And, if you watched it, you know it was an enjoyable show
from that perspective. It was a lot of drama in whether she was going to pull
it 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 age
of 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 kind
of audience the network news traditionally has drawn for decades? And the jury
is still out on that.
How much is too much?
JEFFREY BROWN: The larger context that you're talking about here
is different media competing against each other -- that is, network against
network, in this case...
WILLIAM POWERS: Right.
JEFFREY BROWN: ... but with all other kinds of new
technology and changing behavior among audience, right?
WILLIAM POWERS: Right. Exactly.
I mean, personality, broadly defined, it's not just about
the movie star qualities of someone like Katie Couric. Under the heading of
personality, I would include such things as ideology. You know, people who are
very ideological, pundits who appear on TV, on cable and so forth, have big
And there's an assumption in many corners of the media
today, that the more personality you use in the product, the more you're going
to draw people, the better your numbers, and the more you're going to succeed.
I argued in the column -- and I actually feel personally
that there's a fallacy there -- that, long range, I think personality bumps up
against a limit, and that people, many people, are driven away by too much personality.
The best evidence is cable, cable news, which has never
approached 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 amount
WILLIAM POWERS: Exactly.
And that's what's fascinating to me in this experiment on
CBS and beyond CBS, the idea that people are attempting to adjust how much
personality people want. How much should we should we foist on them, in an
attempt to draw them in?
And it will be interesting to watch, for example, the Katie
experiment. How much will she lean on her personality? How much will the show
lean on her personality? How much will they bring in other big personalities to
help sell the product? We have already heard about some of the commentators
being big-brand names.
And we will see. Will people be drawn to it? I think, you
know, there's a lot of doubt, in my mind, that it will work, again, because
people 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. I
think a little personality goes a long way.
Analyzing the changing media
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have mentioned blogs a couple of
WILLIAM POWERS: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And we have done stories about newspapers in
trouble that are trying to figure out how to reach people with a particular
What do you see media doing to break out of the mold?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well, they're all taking different
approaches. I mean, if you look at the blogs, there are blogs that are
basically subject-driven blogs, blogs where it's all about the news happening
in a particular city or on a particular topic or within a particular
profession. And the person doing the blog perhaps injects a little bit of
personality around the edges, but it's not about that person.
And, at the other end of the spectrum, there are blogs that
are 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 all
stripes. 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 staying
power they're going to have. I do think that the news-driven blogs, the blogs
that let the story be the main story, for me, have more staying power.
And interestingly, you know, in the network tradition, the
network news tradition, that was how it worked. That's the Walter Cronkite
tradition. It wasn't mostly about Cronkite's personality. It was about the
story. He injected himself very rarely into the news. And people liked that. And
maybe we're living in a different culture now, and times have changed. I think
this 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 the
networks. So, they must be finding that people want this kind of personality to
put forward in their newscasts.
WILLIAM POWERS: They do.
You know, I think people are sort of trained by
entertainment, by the shows they watch, the reality shows, you know, whether
it's "The Amazing Race" or "Survivor" or whatever, to want
these personalities sort of looming large in their lives. And, perhaps, when
they answer questions like that about the news, that's what they say.
But I really think, in terms of integrating the news into
our lives, and having a daily diet of keeping up with what's happening in the
world, I think, again, too much personality can become overwhelming and
fatiguing. And, really, you want to move away from it. There are options that
are much more appealing to a lot of people, you know, public radio, this show.
You know, there are so many less personality-driven news
outlets that have followings. And I think those -- that following is going to
grow for a lot of those outlets. And I'm not sure that the personality-driven
model, which I think is part of what is CBS is doing, we have only seen one day
of it, so, you know, we can't say for sure -- but I think that model may be
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, thanks for the plug. And we
will all keep watching.
JEFFREY BROWN: William Powers...
WILLIAM POWERS: My pleasure.
JEFFREY BROWN: ... thanks a lot.
WILLIAM POWERS: Thank you.