From Great White Daddy to Katie Couric: Evolution of the evening news

For a very long time, network news was all about comfort, authority, and the presence of what I’ve come to think of as the Great White Daddy. America grew up with the notion that at a certain time of day, we could all tune in to one of the Three Big Networks and see (and hear) men with patrician features and well-modulated voices telling us both the good and the bad of the day’s events.

As bad as it got, however, it was never so bad that the Great White Daddy would leave us in despair. Before the end of each newscast, there was some germ of hope, some belief that if the story didn’t end happily, it was at least resolved sufficiently enough for us to rest easy at night. Like the fathers of those neat-as-a-pin TV sitcoms, the Great White Daddy would tuck us in for the evening with soothing words and a calm strength that only men on TV (or Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird”) seemed to possess.

Who was the first person to break the Great White Daddy role? Dan Rather was a bit of a maverick. He wasn’t a daddy but an uncle with colorful stories and that back-to-his-roots twang in his voice. Tom Brokaw (at least in the beginning) looked the way a younger version of Daddy-before-the-kids-were-born might look; he was almost crush-worthy for those of us old enough to remember his transition from the Today show.

There were women who guest starred on the Great White Daddy Show, but they were there in the way babysitters are — not regulars, just fill-ins, and not entrusted to manage the anchor desk solo for long stretches. There was Jessica Savitch whose on-air slip up turned into a scandal and was followed by her sudden, unfortunate demise; Connie Chung who was forced to share her anchor desk space with Rather and was rumored to wear leather skirts below her prim jackets; and Barbara Walters who was the first woman to co-anchor network news.

When Katie Couric became the first solo permanent female Big Three network evening news anchor (what a mouthful of qualifiers) she was expected to bring in younger viewers, make the evening news more hip and internet-friendly, and do all this while breaking the format of formality that had been the hallmark of network news. (I think she even opened some newscasts with “Hi everybody.”) She was buried by a mountain of great expectations but little leeway; eventually she was forced to tamp down her sunshiny personality and be anchor-y. It didn’t suit her, and it showed.

Today over at About.com Women’s Issues I wrote about the deal Couric signed with ABC for a daytime talk show and how Forbes.com speculated that it could bring in as much as $100 million.  I have mixed emotions about that one. Even though I know talk is more profitable than the anchor desk, I can’t help but think the world continues to accept women more for their chatty warmth than their hard-earned authority.

But the world has shifted, and perhaps I’m reading too much into the situation. After all, the power and influence of the Great White Daddy has waned. Diane Sawyer is maintaining the beachhead women have established in Network Evening Newsland, and she’s probably better suited there as she was someone who always seemed a little too chilly for morning TV. The best that we can wish for any woman is that she lands where she is suited.

Katie Couric is suited to talk and interviews. I don’t doubt that she will do well and that she’ll not only become “the next Oprah” but bring a little more substance to daytime talk, the way The View has done with their hot topics. (It’s much needed since Julie Chen’s The Talk is setting us back decades.) In a very forthright chat with the Hollywood Reporter, Couric says she won’t be doing the celebrity talk show shtick so much and is interested in ordinary people and their stories; “I think just celebrity for celebrity’s sake isn’t something we’re going to be doing a lot of,” were her exact words.

Thank you Katie. I wasn’t a big Oprah fan, but what I did see suggested that she’d lost her way in this regard; she did do celebrity for celebrity’s sake, and missed a lot of opportunities toward the end to spread the love to include the disenfranchised as she’d done in her earlier years. The behind-the-scenes-of-the-Oprah-show program on OWN revealed how her producers lived in terror of her and the pressure they faced at work; when you see strong women crying over their jobs it tells you something is amiss. And when Oprah insisted that her last Favorite Things show include iPads — although Apple had no need to advertise them or give them away for free (since they were and are having trouble keeping up with production) — and her producers were pulling their hair out to make it happen, I thought it was a case of consumerism gone haywire. I wished her show hadn’t gone in that direction.

Showering audiences with gifts reminds me of how popular Sarah Palin was as governor of Alaska as long as the economy was up and oil money was flowing; she could afford to “pay” every citizen of Alaska a portion of those revenues the state collected from the oil companies and of course when someone puts money in your pocket, you’re popular. I’m not saying that’s what happened with Oprah, but when freebies become a matter of course, something shifts. These are  not the lessons I want to be teaching my daughters and yet this was the value system Oprah was promoting.

But this isn’t a post to bash Oprah – it’s one to applaud Couric for trying to bring a little of everything into her new talk show. The sunniness of the Today show and the seriousness of the CBS Evening News will mix well in a format that she and her former producer Jeff Zucker have plenty of experience with. I don’t watch a lot of daytime talk but many women (and men) do — witness President Obama’s decision to appear on a daytime talk show for the first time in TV history. This is where hearts and minds will be won, and it’s where the money is, not in the evening newscasts.

If bets could be placed, I’d sink a good-sized one into Katie Couric’s talk show, set to debut September 2012.

And if she wants ordinary people telling their stories, I’m first in line.

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