I’ll bet Katie Couric never expected to get the smackdown she received on Monday morning in the pages of the New York Times, inevitably her paper of choice. But TV critic Alessandra Stanley slapped the “Mean Girl of Morning TV” hard and said in print what has been media gossip for months: that NBC is in a panic about the falling ratings of that cash cow, The Today Show. Her Cuteness is no longer the most popular girl in the crowd, with “likeability” ratings in the toilet. In fact, Katie’s recent Q ratings were lower even than Dan Rather’s. Remember him?
We’ve all watched as Katie has grown richer, smugger, and more chic. But for years, Today’s chipmunk-cheeked, Clinton-loving perkette sold women, the primary audience for the morning show’s mélange of a little news and a lot of fluffy features, the notion that she is just like them: a harried working mom.
In her “I’m just like you” phase Katie used to give speeches to adoring audiences describing a typical day in her life. She would tell them, for example, that she was on the phone setting up a play-date for one of her daughters like an ordinary mom, when a staffer beeped her to tell her President Carter was on the line. “President Carter who just won the Nobel Prize? Okay, put him on.” He was calling, she would confide, throwing all modesty to the winds, to thank her for all she had done for him over the years. Yep, just an ordinary mom with a $15-million-a-year paycheck, a Park Avenue co-op, a millionaire boyfriend, a high-priced personal trainer, and the power to control two prime hours of TV five mornings a week.
Andrew Lack, former president of NBC, described Katie, during the good times, as a “fist in the velvet glove,” while for years her staff has called her “Katie Dearest.” Bryant Gumbel, who was considered the heavy when they were Today Show co-anchors once complained, “I’ve had one assistant for 18 years. Somebody who shall remain nameless went through five in five years. I had one makeup and hair person the whole time I was at NBC. Somebody who shall remain nameless went through three or four.” Katie has also pushed out several of Today’s executive producers, sending one packing just last week. The show has had four top producers since 2001. Here-Today-gone-tomorrow has now become a career path at NBC.
When I was a magazine editor, in my personal dealings with Katie I found her both demanding and petulant. But the stress of crashing ratings has obviously made her inner Cruella de Vil–always there under the surface–emerge full-time. Alessandra Stanley writes, “Lately her image has grown downright scary: America’s girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva down the hall. At the first sound of her peremptory voice and clickety stiletto hells, people dart behind doors and douse the lights.”
What is off-putting, especially to her former female fans, is the new buffed, glam persona Katie has become. Each morning she is now expertly and heavily made up–not exactly the look most harried working moms can emulate. And while doing interviews, her bare legs in stiletto mules are perpetually center stage, getting more attention from the camera than the guest she is supposed to be interviewing. On Tuesday morning this week her outfit, perhaps in defiance of her critics, seemed a salute to every spring fashion trend, from large gold hoop earrings (bohemian trend) to a gold-trimmed blouse (glitter trend) to a short ruffled skirt (flirty skirty trend). Yesterday, AOL debated Katie’s diminishing appeal all day on its entertainment site. One Katie basher–and there were many–complained, “I don’t want to see someone with bare legs and open toe shoes giving me the news. Why can’t she look professional?”
But what I think has contributed to Katie’s major loss of appeal is that millions of women have finally caught onto the liberal bias in much of her reporting. Katie, like many women in media, just assumed that all women–just because they were women–agreed with them about issues such as gun control and abortion. She has always been at her sharpest, interviewing those with conservative points of view while throwing softballs at her political favorites. And Katie’s attitudes and opinions did have considerable influence with women. That’s because for years she has come into millions of women’s homes on a daily basis, seemingly so concerned about their needs, able to both dish diets and criticize the government’s policy in Iraq, swoon over celebrities and swoon over Hillary.
Katie marketed herself like a friend–a sophisticated girlfriend–and women want to agree with their friends–up to a point. In the last election the majority of married women with children, exactly the Today Show’s typical viewers, voted for President Bush. Many participants in AOL’s chat room yesterday complained about Katie’s obvious bias and said they had departed to Fox and Friends, Fox News’s morning show, or Good Morning America, where Diane Sawyer shrewdly seems to hide her own opinions behind, in Stanley’s words, her “poised, creamy insincerity.”
Now that the Times has assessed Katie as a liability and concluded that Today needs a lot less of her, won’t it be fascinating to watch how a panicky, profit-obsessed NBC responds to such on-the-mark criticism.