The Curse of the Free Agent

gillette couric1v The Curse of the Free AgentOn May 14, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric woke up in third place. So did Alex Rodriguez and the New York Yankees.

Saving a franchise is not an easy thing for one person to do. Eight months after a multimillion-dollar launch designed to make morning-TV sensation Ms. Couric the face of a new model of evening news, CBS trails ABC by roughly two million viewers and NBC by approximately 1.5 million. As a result, Ms. Couric is staggering through the annual week of television upfront presentations to advertisers on the defensive, battered by questions about her suitability to the job and inane attempts to gauge her popularity. UsMagazine.com recently sponsored a poll asking “Should Katie Couric be fired?” (Fifty-four percent voted yes.)

Mr. Rodriguez, the highest-paid player in baseball, has been down much the same road. In February 2004, in his prime as a slugging shortstop, Mr. Rodriguez agreed to shore up the aging Yankee dynasty by joining the team as a third baseman. Three seasons later and into a fourth, the Yankees have not even reached another World Series, let alone won one. They trail the Boston Red Sox by nine games—and Mr. Rodriguez has been a magnet for fans’ wrath.

It’s the free agent’s curse: No matter what else may be wrong with the franchise, the new arrival’s talent is supposed to overcome it. That’s why they put you in the heart of the lineup, or on those bus billboards. If there are problems that still need fixing, that means the savior is a failure. An ongoing set of adjustments means that the savior is an ongoing failure.

So each new strategy that CBS or the Yankees might try, hoping to win more viewers or more games, gets evaluated as an act of publicity long before the results come in. Ms. Couric and the CBS Evening News are going through the kind of scrutiny usually presented on WFAN: Are they sunk? Are they crazy? What were they thinking in the first place? And how long can they keep making excuses for that overpriced bum?

Currently, the Yankees are looking up in the standings at a team, the Red Sox, who are playing the Yankees’ game better than the Yankees—i.e., winning ballgames with the finest team money can buy. CBS, having hired the most celebrated anchor in the modern history of morning television, now finds itself looking up in the ratings at a news team helmed by former morning-news anchor Charles Gibson.

In both cases, the Yankees and CBS News are publicly vowing to return to fundamentals: to get back to doing what they once did best. The Yankees got rid of Gary Sheffield and Randy Johnson and went back to the old days, bringing back first Andy Pettitte and now Roger Clemens. CBS News got rid of executive producer Rome Hartman and rehired correspondent Jeff Greenfield and executive producer Rick Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan, an associate producer in the Walter Cronkite era and a former president of CNN and MSNBC, is tasked with the rehabilitation process at hand—that is, making the new CBS Evening News look a lot more like the old CBS Evening News.

The talking point that goes with that is patience. It’s a long season. The Yankees still have more than 120 games to play. CBS News execs continue to frame their rebuilding project in terms of years, not months.

“The disconnect for me is that we all say— and can prove it—that these things take a long time,” said CBS News senior vice president Paul Friedman. “And the people writing about us always acknowledge that—some of them even bother to write it—but then they keep going!”