Tuned In: Couric to emphasize context when she anchors CBS news

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Pasadena, Calif. -- Katie Couric, new anchor of the "CBS Evening News" beginning Sept. 5, and CBS News president Sean McManus didn't offer a lot of details about how the revamped national newscast will differ from the version that currently exists, but it's clear they don't intend to reinvent the wheel. At least not at the outset.

Richard Drew, Associated Press
"We need to do a better job of explaining things better, of distilling them better," Katie Couric says.
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Rob Owen's Tuned In Journal

McManus said the newscast will be "fresh, intelligent, relevant and transparent" with a stated goal of attracting a larger share of the 25 million people already watching one of the three evening newscasts.

"To put on a program so jarring and so different to the audience already watching would be a mistake," McManus said, as a noticeably subdued Couric sat to his left.

Interim "Evening News" anchor Bob Schieffer will continue to have a "regular and prominent" role in the newscast, contributing from Washington. Schieffer may or may not offer a commentary.

Couric recently embarked on a listening tour to select cities around the country, surveying how people get their news and trying to learn what the nightly national newscasts are not offering that she can incorporate into the "CBS Evening News."

"It reinforced, happily, that there are a lot of highly intelligent, very engaged people in the country who are interested in serious subjects and news of the day," Couric said. "I think it will help inform the way we approach the news come September."

Among the approaches: A heavy online component, including daily, on-demand, Web-exclusive interviews; a blog; a radio simulcast of the newscast's first segment on CBS Radio News, and a 4:35 p.m. one-minute look at the day's top story that will be broadcast on 500 CBS affiliated radio stations nationwide.

Couric said she's excited to stop talking about anchoring the "CBS Evening News" and start doing the job. She hopes to offer a newscast that better explains the ramifications of what's happening in the world, including the history behind current events.

"I think sometimes we assume people know more than they do about history and historical context," she said. "I think some Americans hear 'Hamas' and 'Hezbollah,' and it might as well be Greek to them. We need to do a better job of explaining things better, of distilling them better."

Couric said she wants to continue to use the skills she honed on "Today," including interviews when warranted, and she said the evening news format won't obliterate her existing persona.

"I'm not going to suddenly be in a straitjacket and not able to have any of who I am as a person come out," she said. "It's going to be a different format, and I'm going to have to learn as I go, but certain skills I acquired at the 'Today' show will be used at the 'CBS Evening News.'" She made a joke about having Martha Stewart on for regular cooking segments, but said she does hope she will "occasionally have fun with doing a story."

"It's been a challenge for me because the morning format is so multidimensional, and I think because it has such a variety of pieces and you're asked to do such a variety of things that sometimes people forget I have done a lot of very serious things," Couric said. "It's almost as if, if you've done the fun stuff, you can't be serious, because I don't think people feel if you do the serious stuff, you can't be fun. ... Just because you embraced all different things on ['Today'], that should not diminish your intelligence or ability to do serious news."

Couric grimaced at the notion that she's part of America's "media royalty" and indicated that the media have a greater interest in her changing role than most viewers.

"I don't think they're nearly as interested as you all are," she told the assembled TV critics. "There's always interest when there's a big change in something that's been around for this long and played such an important role in the tapestry of this country. But I think it's easy for us to be consumed by it. The rest of America is dealing with other things that affect them directly."

Making 'Smith'

The pilot for CBS's heist series "Smith," which filmed a portion of its pilot in Pittsburgh this year, runs a hefty 60 minutes without commercials. Executive producer John Wells, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate, said the premiere episode won't be cut but will air as a 90-minute premiere with commercials or as a commercial-free, single-sponsor hour.

The show is set in Los Angeles with a band of thieves (led by Ray Liotta and including Simon Baker of "The Guardian") who travel the country staging commissioned heists. In the pilot, they steal art from Pittsburgh's fictional "Tanner Museum" (Oakland's Mellon Institute plays the exterior, while the Carnegie Museum was used for filming some of the interiors).

"We'll come back to Pittsburgh," Wells said. "I'm not sure it will be this year because we just did it, but it's a beautiful city to shoot."

Director Chris Chulack said he'd never been to Pittsburgh before "Smith," but he was impressed with the city visually and with the filming experience.

"We were moving fast and furious, setting off explosions, and I think the city treated us really well," Chulack said. "The crew we hired there was great. It didn't feel different from shooting in New York, Chicago or South Africa. For the stuff we did in the short time we were doing it, it couldn't have gone more smoothly."

Baker plays a cold-blooded killer in "Smith" who shoots two guys in the pilot when they throw him off a Hawaiian beach. Like his "Guardian" character, he doesn't say much in "Smith."

"Actions speak louder than words," Baker said, grinning.

While other cast members justified the likability of their characters at a news conference, afterward Baker said that was of less interest to him, saying he couldn't care less whether anyone likes him, because "I had fun."

Baker, who moved his family back to Australia before "Smith" and has since moved them back to Los Angeles, said returning to Pittsburgh, where "The Guardian" was set and occasionally filmed, was "weird."

"It was the same hotel, but a different time of year," Baker said. "Every time we were there for 'The Guardian,' it was summer, and this time it was freezing cold. It was just nice to see people in the lobby of the hotel, people who worked at the hotel, who I knew. I ran into familiar faces."

Baker, who just wrapped the film "Sex and Death 101" (starring Winona Ryder and written and directed by Daniel Waters of "Heathers" fame), said he doesn't miss "The Guardian."

"Three years was enough to get it out of my system," he said.

His time on "Smith" could be briefer. Wells envisions the series as one with the potential for a lot of cast turnover.

"The idea with this series is there will be a lot of actors in this show if it lasts five or six years," he said. "People get caught, people run away, people die."

Tuned In Journal

If you're not reading the Tuned In Journal online, you're missing news about John Stamos on "ER," Showtime's "Sleeper Cell," "Battlestar Galactica," "MI-5" and observations from the press tour about serialized shows, former Murrysville resident Julie Benz, HBO's "Entourage" and the return of British show "Cracker." Read it at www.post-gazette.com/tv/tunedin.


Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. You can reach him at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com .


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