On Feb. 5, during MSNBC’s Super Tuesday political coverage, anchor Keith Olbermann joked that during this long primary season, it sometimes seemed like everyone in the business had already anchored a debate. “I think most people at home have now moderated one as well,” said Mr. Olbermann.
If Katie Couric was watching at home, chances are she wasn’t laughing. Eight months and more than 20 debates into podium season, Ms. Couric has yet to get anywhere near the big stage.
How did the highest-paid anchor on evening television get upstaged by Brian Williams, Brit Hume, Charles Gibson, Wolf Blitzer, Tim Russert, George Stephanopoulos, Campbell Brown, Chris Wallace, Natalie Morales and on and on?
The official explanation from CBS: Ms. Couric was the victim of circumstance.
“I wish we had been able to work it out,” said Sean McManus, the president of CBS News. “I think [Ms. Couric] would have been really good at it. I think it would have been a good showcase for CBS News. But it just wasn’t to be this cycle.”
But recent conversations with competitors, current and former CBS News employees, and experts in the TV-debate business raised the question whether CBS News, facing a perpetually shrinking budget and having already committed to a reported $15 million a year to Ms. Couric, has enough resources—emotional and financial—to deliver big for their biggest star.
Throwing a debate is a budget-busting expenditure for a news division because of both the cost of setting up a staging facility and because of the advertising revenue lost due to the limited commercial inventory during such news events—but what networks gain is a voice in the election cycle, for the network and for the network’s rising and established stars.
In the past, CBS has not been reluctant to shell out money to maximize on the Katie Couric phenomenon.
“You think about how much they wasted early on in billboards and other crap, wouldn’t it be smarter to invest in substance now?” said one source, with knowledge of CBS’s aborted debate plans. “Either the network is fundamentally dedicated to spending the money, or they’re not. If you’re really dedicated to bumping your news to another level, you host a debate. But there’s either no interest or no follow-through.”
Mr. McManus said that CBS News remains committed to all things political, including hosting primary debates.
“It wasn’t a financial decision,” said Mr. McManus, of this season’s shutout. “It’s a programming decision and finding an appropriate time to put it in prime time. It does cost a fair amount of money in preemption costs to put them in prime time. But that wasn’t the primary reason it didn’t happen.”
The story began back on May, 16, when the Democratic National Committee announced the dates, locations and media sponsors of six DNC debates. CBS would host one in Los Angeles on Dec. 10. It was a choice assignment because of (a) the timing (it would be the final debate before the Iowa caucus) and (b) the location. As CNN would later prove at the Kodak Theater on Jan. 31, a debate in L.A. is bound to attract stars—Jason Alexander!—and eyeballs.
Shortly thereafter, during the summer of 2007, CBS News informed the DNC that they wanted to hold the debate inside a studio at the CBS Television City in Los Angeles and—notably—without a live audience.
According to several sources, that idea didn’t sit well with the DNC. Holding the debate in a closed studio rather than in front of a live audience is seen by those in the business as a classic cost-saving gambit—and one (collateral damage!) that would deny Democratic diehards and donors the opportunity to show up and get crazy for their candidates. The plan was also at odds with the terms already hammered out with the Democratic candidates. Negotiations sputtered. According to sources, at several points over the summer, the debate appeared on the brink of death.
At the same time, CBS News executives were grappling with the absence of political director, Molly Levinson, who had gone on maternity leave in July. Barbara Fedida, a CBS News executive charged in part with recruiting talent, began looking for somebody who could fill in and help Ms. Couric prepare for the debate. According to sources, CBS eventually reached out to a number of individuals, including former NBC political director Elizabeth Wilner; and—more surprisingly—to Michael Feldman, a former senior adviser to the Clinton-Gore administration and a founding partner of the Glover Park Group.
In some quarters, word of the latter meeting raised eyebrows.
“Networks use political consultants as outside contributors to do commentary all the time,” explained one source with extensive knowledge of TV debate logistics. “But you should not have one in charge of your debate preparation. The debate is a news event. They should know better.”