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Was CBS’ Moonves Spooked By The Katie Couric Decision?

Was CBS' Moonves Spooked By The Katie Couric Decision?

I’m not a shrink, nor do I purport to play one online. Still, I wonder about an aspect of Les Moonves’ savvy decision to select Stephen Colbert as the successor to David Letterman.

Specifically, did the failure of the great Katie Couric experiment play a part in Moonves’ thinking?

When Moonves had the task of replacing Dan Rather a decade or so ago, he ultimately enticed Couric, who at the time was America’s biggest morning-news star. She had made her mark for years at NBC’s Today show. Moonves reportedly offered her $13 million a year to come over and try her hand at hard news at 6:30 p.m.

It didn’t go well for any party. Couric was often criticized for lacing the necessary gravitas. CBS was ripped for apparently trotting out a gimmick to fill a seat that Walter Cronkite himself (and Rather) had occupied with distinction. Couric’s ratings were disappointing and CBS didn’t close the gap between itself and leader NBC Nightly News. Couric only lasted for five years, a fraction of the respective tenures of Water Cronkite and Rather.

Moonves tried something interesting and noble, even. He tried to re-invent the evening-news broadcast from the inside ut, by placing a woman n the big anchor chair. Either America wasn’t ready for such an idea or Couric simply didn’t appeal to the nation in that role.

So, I wonder if Moonves did what many have accused him of doing here: Play it safe. He chose the safe choice, Stephen Colbert, talented, witty, personable, experienced, popular, established.mlonves didn’t choose, say, Chelsea Handler or a glib minority comic. He didn’t go for an Asian actor. He didn’t want a Gen X or Gen Y up-and-comer. Moonves wanted someone who was already fixed in our minds.

As Jerry Seinfeld has said, comedy is not a census. Moonves made the right choice because Colbert IS the safe choice. Late-night TV is too fragile now to take elaborate chances. The public can’t be trusted to embrace someone it doesn’t know, either. 

Moonves clearly is NOT trying to re-invent late-night TV. He is perfectly happy to go with the flow and bet that Colbert will challenge the two Jimmys on their terms.

Moonves smartly didn’t feel a need to re-invent the late-night TV ecosystem. He found the best available person for the job. It doesn’t matter to CBS whether this person was safe or not or whether it was appropriate to pick “just another white guy.” The right person got the job.

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