The Curse of the Free Agent

Mr. Friedman says that too much experimentation early on in Ms. Couric’s tenure drove away older viewers. Now, CBS News is hoping to win them back courtesy of Mr. Kaplan’s retooled newscast, which emphasizes more news, less interviews and less features. “I think what you see now is about where we want to be,” Mr. Friedman said. “There are some people who believe that we’ve gone too much in that direction and now we’re undistinguishable from the other guys and that we need to be mixing it up more with franchise pieces.”

In the coming months, according to Mr. Friedman, Ms. Couric and company will be hitting the road, hosting shows in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston, to reintroduce regional audiences to their product. It’s the same approach, said Mr. Friedman, that he used years ago when he worked at ABC to help drive Peter Jennings’ newscast into the top spot. “It takes a long while,” Mr. Friedman said. “We did it with Peter, too. We traveled all over the damn country.”

(Mr. Rodriguez, meanwhile, stopped jerking his head in mid-swing the way he did last year and produced a barrage of early-season home runs.)

Both Ms. Couric and Mr. Rodriguez are good-looking and rich and sometimes inspire envy among colleagues. Both are said to require much clubhouse coddling and have had rocky relationships with their teammates. And both were brought to their current positions by powerful men (Les Moonves and George Steinbrenner, respectively) who possess legendary yet fickle drives to acquire top talent.

Since the phone lines are open for second-guessing, what should CBS be doing?

Reese Schonfeld, the former president of CNN, believes the problem at CBS News runs much deeper than the anchor position.

“My feeling is that CBS made a fundamental error in thinking that changing their anchor would make any difference,” Mr. Schonfeld said. “They’re all stuck in a not-too-good place. Katie came in at a bad time. There was no reason why anybody should turn to her; she didn’t provide a reason. I don’t know that it’s her fault.”

Mr. Schonfeld said he believes that reverting to the old system—12 to 15 minutes of hard news culled from the likes of the A.P. and The New York Times, followed by seven to 10 minutes of original features—is an unlikely recipe for success in the long run. Mr. Schonfeld said that the networks should learn from Roger Ailes and Fox News, who have succeeded by tailoring their news to a specific niche. “Katie needs a whole new idea,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “Maybe Kaplan will give it to her. But I doubt it.”

Line two! Aaron Barnhart, a television writer with The Kansas City Star, said he thinks that Ms. Couric is talented broadcaster who got lured into a losing situation. He pointed to a parallel between Leslie Moonves’ strategy for revitalizing the CBS Evening News in the wake of the Dan Rather debacle and what he’s done over the years to try and solve the network’s prime-time line up with quick fixes.

“He’ll get enamored of a celebrity, a big name that he thinks will be a viewer magnet. That star, be it Ted Danson or Bill Cosby, will be signed to a 22-episode deal,” Mr. Barnhart said. “They’ll be rolled out at press tour. They’ll come and say nice words on the stage at Carnegie Hall at the upfront. For that moment, everybody loves … Ted, or Bryant, or whoever. This person is going to revitalize prime time for CBS. What happens, more often than not, is the show tanks. Six months later, Leslie Moonves has moved on.

“That’s what we’re toying with here, with one big exception,” Mr. Barnhart continued. “You can’t cancel the CBS Evening News.”

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