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Joan Vennochi

Exit strategies for television news

FOR WOMEN in TV news land, happy endings are hard to negotiate.

If complaints about fluffiness don't bring you down prematurely, eventually the age lines will.

In Boston, legendary broadcast journalist Natalie Jacobson is signing off to well-deserved accolades after 35 years as a respected reporter and successful anchor.

Jacobson has gravitas galore. But, for all the credibility, awards, and scoops she brought to Channel 5, her last contract was for one year only.

That's as much job security as her employers were willing to extend to a 60-something woman who anchored almost every major news event in New England over the past three decades. At the same age as Jacobson, Jack Williams was granted a new lease on broadcast life as principal anchor at Channel 4. And longtime anchor Tom Ellis, now in his 70s, still clings to a weekend job at New England Cable News.

"In television, 50 is an extremely dangerous age for women," said public relations consultant George Regan.

It's a tribute to Jacobson's strong connection with her audience that she survived long beyond that cut-off. A lack of audience connection, exacerbated by the fluffiness charge, is likely to kill off Katie Couric as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

For Couric, the writing might as well be crawling across the bottom of the screen that displays her third-ranked CBS newscast: It's over. It's just a question of how and when she exits.

Forget the denials from CBS brass. Last week's lengthy profile of Couric in New York Magazine marks the beginning of the end of her short reign as the first solo woman anchor on an evening newscast.

The magazine article lays out the problem Couric faces. The heart of it is proving she is serious enough to anchor the evening news. To solve the dilemma, the magazine reports, she is wearing pantsuits instead of flashing her 50-year-old legs. Katie, that's not going to do it.

Men always have it easier. ABC's Charles Gibson could make the transition from morning to evening anchor. Going from slightly bemused to slightly solemn was as gentle on the viewers as switching from a navy suit to a gray one.

But Couric's persona as morning TV's saucy queen bee is too vivid to forget or easily discard. It doesn't work on the evening newscast, but changing it amounts to changing what Couric's fan base liked about her in the first place.

An even bigger problem may be that the old image of the perky Couric of NBC's "Today Show" is now running up against the image of a temperamental Couric at CBS. The New York Magazine article recounts an episode, which Couric confirms, of the anchor repeatedly slapping a colleague on the arm because he used a word she didn't like in a newscast ("sputum" in a story on tuberculosis). Being cast as a slightly wacky, stressed-out woman over 50 is a career-killer in most fields, TV included.

Here in Boston, Jacobson lasted on TV as long as she did because her on-air persona remained constant and authentic over the years. It was casual and at the same time dignified. Above all, it was genuine. People liked what they saw and trusted what they heard. Viewers stuck with her, even after she split with her husband and co anchor Chet Curtis. It was a sign of Jacobson's market power that she remained at Channel 5 after their divorce in 2001, while Curtis went to NECN.

Jacobson scripted the best possible ending for herself, announcing her departure on her own terms and predicting a new career venture.

It's a good lesson in the value of a well-thought-out exit strategy. Couric won't have the luxury of time to figure one out, although she will have the comfort of a $15 million-a-year contract.

But letting go can be hard, no matter what your job or pay scale. Since it often takes women longer to get to where they want to be in their career, there is added ambivalence about walking away from all they worked to achieve.

The years put extra pressure on women in TV. Frankly, in today's youth-obsessed culture, they put pressure on all of us -- whether we are toiling in front of computer screens or watching ourselves on high-definition TV screens.

As Walter Cronkite might say, that's the way it is.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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