The test of a TV anchor isn't a single nightly newscast. If the Face of a Network still plays an important cultural role -- and a lot of money and attention this summer says it does -- it's as a VIP in reserve, required chiefly in a crisis, when viewers need a televised mix of competence and calm.
Katie Couric and her new CBS people surely know that; they also know there's no sense in reinventing the nightly news in the meantime. So while the ``CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" has some spiffy window-dressing, its anchor did exactly what was expected last night: gave a warm greeting, introduced segments, signed off. A half-hour went by with an unsurprising menu of stories: the Taliban, Bush, oil, heartwarming feature, and the exclusive announcement that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had themselves a pretty good-looking baby.
Couric must be as relieved as anyone that it's over. Her extended courtship, treated as cataclysmic news, seems to have gotten everyone into a lather, Couric included. She launched her new CBS blog yesterday with a Theodore Roosevelt quote, in which she compared great people to their critics. ``The credit," he said in 1910 , ``belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ."
There's a bit of discord here, since America never really wanted swashbuckling or sweat in its girls next door. Couric has done well by mining that image, and last night she seemed no different. She was a genial viewer stand-in, even during a slightly bewildering interview of
Couric will, it's clear, be working hard as she awaits her big test. In addition to helming news specials -- tonight she hosts a 9/11 retrospective, ``Five Years -- How Safe Are We?" -- she'll be blogging, teasing stories in a webcast, and doing her share of big-get interviews. Tonight, she gets to talk to President Bush. (Charlie Gibson, at ABC, gets him tomorrow.)
CBS is trying to distinguish itself with a few new homey features, including a regular-guy-gets-a-forum segment called ``Free Speech." Again, it's hard to judge from a single night, but it might have been nice to launch it with a more provocative opinion. Instead, we got `` Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock , looking vaguely uncomfortable in a suit, delivering a lengthy and unnecessary rant about how Americans' politics are middle-of-the-road.
It went along like that most of the night: competent and safe. A tiny bit of payoff came at the end, when Couric and crew decided to poke fun at the enterprise. They launched a cheesy interactive feature, in which viewers can offer suggestions for Couric's new signoff. They also played a montage of newscasters signing off, and ended with Will Ferrell in the movie ``Anchorman " saying, ``You stay classy, San Diego."
Stay classy, CBS. Wait for the crisis. In the meantime, things will sail along just fine.