CBS rolls the niche-news dice

george11You know, you just know, that the powers that be at the CBS Evening News have been focus-group testing this big move for months. Right now they are celebrating, but they also have to know that a large chunk of America did not (early poll numbers here) want to see Katie Couric end her 173-hairstyle career at the Today Show and move to the top chair at the Big Eye.

There is something here that I am missing. CBS removed a veteran liberal general in the media culture wars (that would be Dan Rather) and immediately experienced (to the shock of all) a nice upturn in ratings under the safe, respectable, non-offensive leadership of veteran Bob Schieffer. So now it is time to name Couric, who, in her own way, is almost as controversial as Rather?

Hours before the announcement, Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik tried to connect some of these dots.

In her favor, Couric will inherit a rejuvenated newscast on the upswing. ... The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer has gained some 750,000 viewers compared to the same time last year, while both the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC World News Tonight have lost audience. Since Peter Jennings left ABC's anchor desk a year ago after announcing that he had lung cancer, World News Tonight has lost almost as many viewers as CBS has gained.

For the first time in more than a decade of dwelling in a distant third place, CBS Evening News is within striking distance of overtaking ABC -- and Couric could be the beneficiary of that. But the success CBS has enjoyed is a double-edged sword. Should the momentum falter -- or worse, the ratings start to drop once Couric arrives -- the blame is sure to be placed solely on her.

What does this have to do with religion?

I think that CBS executives should be nervous, for reasons that have a lot to do with television viewers in red zip codes and, surprise, the moral and cultural issues that often dominate the news. I think that the focus-group folks must have said that Couric will be a hit in blue zip codes and will woo female and young viewers in the red zones.

But is she elite enough for the blue intellectuals? Can she manage to hold her tongue and convince anyone that her strong feelings on religious and social issues will not shape the newscast?

This is, after all, the early-morning host who has almost kept the conservative Media Research Center staff in business all by herself, spinning out what media critics on the right consider a world-class collection of biased sound bites. Click here to jump to a greatest hits collection in honor of her elevation. Couric has been ticking off cultural and religious conservatives for many years now, with -- wow! -- her recent on-air tussle with the founders of Ave Maria University providing a new chapter in a long drama.

But it is crucial to note that media critics on the left have rushed to her defense. This is the key point: She is a lightning rod for the right and, in some ways, an icon for many on the left. Hillary Clinton is rejoicing tonight.

So what is CBS up to? How will this decision affect coverage of religious, moral and cultural issues? Of conflicts between world religions? And one final question, in this age of Fox News and its rising statistics: Has CBS simply decided to venture into the marketplace of niche news by creating a franchise led by a woman who will drive away many viewers, but rally others?

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