Television

Dead Air

Why CBS should shutter its news division.

Katie Couric. Click image to expand.
CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric

To judge by the ads, the most loyal adherents to CBS’ quasi-journalistic programming are impotent and incontinent. It so happens that they share these afflictions with the network’s actual news division. Katie Couric is reportedly itching to bolt her gig as the anchor of broadcast TV’s worst-rated evening newscast. Last month, Shelley Ross lost her job producing The Early Show, the worst-rated morning newscast, after problems concerning temper tantrums and tequila parties. Most weeks, the perfectly decent Bob Schieffer, who will retire after the 2009 inauguration, sees Face the Nation to a finish as the third-rated Sunday show. And the only thing worse than the Nielsen numbers is the product.

Poor Katie, a victim of the poor health of her medium and of simple chauvinism, of unreasonably high expectations and of a stupidly high salary. For $15 million a year, you’d think she could at least pretend to be having fun up there, but—last Friday, at least—all her cheer was forced, and all her charm was canned. Going through the motions, she went through the news of the day—polygamists in Texas, pope in Gotham, some perfunctory stuff from the campaign trail, a dollop of business news. Somewhere in there was a bit on the Pennsylvania primary featuring a snippet from Billy Joel’s “Allentown.”

The night’s big enterprise piece was a report—thin with substance, thick with outrage—on congressional earmark spending on an aquarium in Chicago. “A taxpayer watchdog group thinks something fishy is going on there,” said Couric. Poor Katie. The aquarium “sits on millions of dollars in net assets,” said whichever reporter it was. Hmm. I’m no not-for-profit expert, but isn’t that called an endowment? The human-interest story was about a child who’d reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, and Couric kept teasing it in the oddest way: Boy versus mountain. Who wins? Stay tuned. This is rather like saying, Man versus dog. Who bites whom? Film at 11. Poor Katie.

I suppose that we’ll have to talk about The Early Show, a program entirely lacking in tonal coherence. Co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez looked awfully lonely by herself in the studio on Monday, and she led with either the polygamist story or more pope pap; who can remember? Her partner, Harry Smith, was in Pennsylvania. “Coming up,” he said, “we’re going to explain why Pennsylvania is such an amazing state.” This was about 7:30 a.m. The commercial break included a promo for CSI: Miami that featured one close-up of a corpse and, for variety, one medium shot of a corpse. When we came back, it turned out that what’s great about Pennsylvania are such things as Utz pretzels, Heinz ketchup, Rolling Rock beer, Pittsburgh’s Andrew Warhola. There were visual aids, in case you couldn’t quite put your finger on what a ketchup bottle looks like. Smith: “It’s a pretty cool state, I should say.” I have two nephews in elementary school in Philadelphia, and I think their parents would be troubled if ketchup and beer were the best that they could come up with for an oral report on this topic.

The Early Show gave us some more polygamy coverage; then, at 8:02 a.m., ran a promo for Moonlight in which the camera lavished Bruce Weber-style attention on its hero’s bare torso; then went back to Pennsylvania to play a sample of Billy Joel’s “Allentown.” At 8:55 a.m., Today aired a live performance by Alicia Keys, and Good Morning America hosted the country act Ashton Shepherd. The Early Show, eager to get in on the musical fun, ran a montage of pope moments set to tinkling sap.

A brief word about CBS Sunday Morning: While it is obvious that this network’s coverage and presentation of current events is geared toward old people, the target audience of Charles Osgood’s show seems to be already dead—peacefully so. There was, last time around, some tranquil nature footage. Also, a profile of crooner Michael Bublé that refused to stint on clichés. (“The other thing Bublé won’t change, he says, is being himself, outspoken and open.”) Ben Stein, the actor and economist, came on to do a commentary on the mortgage crisis in which he argued that federal funds should be devoted to aiding the dogs and cats disadvantaged by the fallout. Either this was exquisitely subtle satire, or everyone involved with the segment has lost his mind.

We’re supposed to have some respect for 60 Minutes, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. The most recent episode began with a Lara Logan piece on a Special Forces unit in Afghanistan. It was teased as a tale of valor that would also expose why we are losing in Afghanistan. In reality, it only addressed one of these topics. Guess which! Recounting a battle between the Green Berets and the Taliban, Logan—whose hair was mussed, which I take to be a considered choice—gave us a boys’ adventure story of the old school. It takes nothing away from the courage and sacrifice of these soldiers to say that the segment was an encyclopedia of war-story treacle: “I thought, ‘If I’m going down, I’m taking them with me,’ ” and so on.

Next, Leslie Stahl did a number on the side effects of gastric bypass surgery. Some studies suggest that it has substantial benefits for diabetes patients. On the down side, it may make you more likely to kill yourself. Why were we talking about this? Next, the dapper veteran Morley Safer reported on a lost mural of da Vinci’s. This segment was fine, despite mostly delivering the impression that it was a shrewd way for Safer to take a trip to Florence, where I do hope he had some shoes made. In our few minutes with Andy Rooney—now in his 30th year on the show and in his 29th as a cranky old punch line—Andy inveighed passionately against the airline industry. “I like to get up and walk around when I fly, but they don’t make the aisles as wide as they used to. …” He proposed we should boycott the airline industry for a week.

Taking a cue, I propose that it is time for CBS News to be put down, in the Old Yeller sense of the phrase. It’s time to turn out the lights and just start airing Hollywood gossip at 6:30 p.m. The network could follow Schieffer’s lead and simply dissolve the thing after the inauguration, maybe keeping 60 Minutes around, either as a commercial-free public service program (because what exec doesn’t love a prestige-hogging loss leader?) or under the auspices of CBS’ entertainment division (because why keep pretending?). The farewell would be handled with dignified pomp—tributes to Murrow and Severeid and so forth. And if Walter Cronkite is in good health, he could do the honors with a final sign off. I’m serious. That’s how bad things are, and that’s the way it is.