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Hidden lessons from the Katie Couric NY Mag story

Many people have written about Katie Couric’s fall as CBS News anchor, but not all that many have done so from a business or marketing perspective.

One of my favorite pieces on the Couric NY Mag story came from Denny Hatch. When I read the NY Mag story, I was stunned – like Hatch – that she admitted having no clue who her viewers were. Were they soccer moms, retirees, executives, blue collar workers or what? While she had the nads to admit that she didn’t know, I didn’t see any evidence that she was trying to correct that serious lack of information about her news program.

There were a few other excerpts from the NY mag story that really stuck out for me.

First, this one:

She and CBS are now taking a long, hard look at what went wrong. â??I think the one thing that I realized, looking back at it and analyzing it, is people are very unforgiving and very resistant to change,â? says Couric. â??The biggest mistake we made is we tried new things.â? Which is why she is now sitting somberly behind the desk at CBS, shuffling papers and doing her best impersonation of a traditional news anchor. Her original show has been scrapped. Even her informal greeting, â??Hi, everyone,â? was buttoned up to a more formal â??Hello.â?

I’m not of the mind that it was a mistake to try new things, but it is a mistake to keep doing the same thing when it clearly isn’t working. Continuous analysis, measurement and improvement. The TV industry has plenty of measurement tools (Nielsen, etc), yet CBS and Couric say they still don’t know their customers?

Then, the “broken windows” segments of the article:

In 1991, the budget for the CBS Evening News was about $65 million a year; by 2000, it was closer to $35 million. <snip> Often the first question people would ask about a story is, â??How much does it cost?â?? And I didnâ??t really experience that a lot at NBC, quite frankly.â?

Being frugal is one thing. Gutting the quality of the product to cut expenses is quite another – especially when it’s a fragile, time-sensitive commodity like the news.

I remember watching Walter Cronkite as a kid. When Cronkite said something, you could believe it. That Cronkite is remembered as unbiased (particularly as compared to himself and his colleagues today) is perhaps colored by youthful ignorance, but the news teams of 30-40 years ago were trusted by America – whether that was right or not. Can you imagine Cronkite not reporting an important story because he was told it was too expensive? Perhaps he experienced that, but the perception sure isn’t there that he dealt with something like this. Cheapening the product to the point where people no longer value it is a huge mistake. It isn’t enough to deliver the cheap news, nor to massage it to fit your mindset much less your budget.

Then this:

She was also taken aback by CBSâ??s ragged infrastructure: The womenâ??s bathroom was so filthy and run-down she demanded it be renovated.

If she was coming into a situation with open eyes, this sort of thing had to stick out as a messenger of things to come. I’m not saying that you wouldn’t take a $15MM job because of the bathroom, but it’s definitely a “broken window” that should have drawn attention to the likelyhood other, more serious problems.

Last but not least, this:

Moonves, a TV executive with a barrel-chested confidence in his gut for good TV, says he bears no responsibility for how the show has failed: â??Nope. I really donâ??t.â?

The manager of the news division doesn’t bear responsibility for the success of the division’s biggest product? Hello, McFly? McFly? Couric is obviously 60 Minutes material, not a new age Cronkite. CBS clearly needed a calm voice that “America could trust” after the Rather memo disaster – yet they hired the sexiest legs in TV news and built the set to show them off. Whose decision was that?