It was the strangest thing. Suddenly, in the summer of 2006, from diverse corners, I heard people speaking ill of Katie Couric. Nothing specific. But it was unmistakeable and ubiguitous. The talk grumpy and shocked.
Then I heard Ms. Couric was planning to leave her NBC day-time show, Today, for the CBS Evening News. Interestingly, no one was criticizing her for seeking a change in assignments. No, they were speaking ill of her character, her intelligence, or good intentions.
The mystery of the criticism (and especially, the misdirected nature of the criticism) makes sense if we suppose that people were registering a sense of dissonance. Something about the day-time Couric was incompatible with the proposed "Couric" of the evening news.
I haven’t done the research here, but at a distance some things seem clear. The day time Couric (DTC) fashioned a particular bargain with the American viewer. DTC would be unthreatening, approachable, winning. She would forswear any of the grandeur or power that adheres to the celebrity of Angelina Jolie or even a Diane Sawyer. No, DTC would be diminutive in every sense. She would be "cute," the least threatening of the public persona a woman can assume. She would, in short, be "Katie," not Katherine.
It was if viewers were dubious. How could diminutive DTC occupy a position of a sage, dignified, and solemn of a nighttime newsreader. The American viewers had "bought" the first construction of the public Couric. And they were taking umbrage at her symbolic relocation.
It is a larger anthropological question why it is our day time personality should have to be approachable and nightime newsreaders austere. Perhaps, we suppose that the "vessel" of nighttime news must be stout enough to withstand the emotional difficulty and moral horror contained in many newscasts. Perhaps its a simpler sexism that says that news reading at night is a kind of rhetorical heavy lifting and to this extent "men’s work."
In any case, this opens up an interesting case study in the world of meaning management. This is the kind of thing that marketers know how to think about. At least, I think we do.
The first question is whether some meanings are nonnegotiable. Once a celebrity or a brand lays claim to them, the deal is done. We can shift the line of the ocean liner we have created. But, effectively, no real changes of direction are possible. This point of view would have said that Katie Couric was now the captive of our persona and that the nighttime news was a bad idea.
The second question says, if meanings are negotiable, how do we negotiate them? Clearly, CBS is doing their darndest. They have changed the pronounciation of Ms. Couric’s name. They have worked on hair style and color. Clothing is, I am sure, a matter of constant debate. Ditto, he temper and pacing of Ms. Couric’s speaking voice.
One option is clearly out. It doesn’t make any sense to rush to the other extreme, and insist that Katie is now Katherine. There is no point in dressing Ms. Couric up in gravitas, even if this is the single most frequently used adjective when it comes to praising newscaster. No, the point of the exercise was to give gravitas a certain approachability, to "port" Ms. Couric’s winningness into role of the newscaster. Clearly, CBS was hoping that Katie + newscaster would reach out to new segments, to animate and perhaps soften the news.
But if the news today is anything to judge by, things are not going well. The CBS Evening News has fallen to third place. Splicing the old Couric with the newscaster role is not working. I think from an anthropological and a marketing point of view, it is fair to say there is no sweet spot, no point where these two meanings meet and mix. In our culture, thanks perhaps to several centuries of gender discrimination, these categories (the approachable and the austere) are mutually inconsistent. One is what the other is not.
Unless we are simply to throw up our hands and say this is a bad idea, one must find another strategy. I think the real possibility is an episodic approach, so that Ms. Couric is sometimes approachable and sometimes grave, but never attempts to be the two together. This takes a careful crafting of the message, but if I were CBS I would be scouring the career of Elizabeth I, a monarch who deftly sought to win both love and fear by demonstrating being sometimes one monarch and sometimes another,so to inspire the loyalty of her fractious, diverse, easily distracted subjects (and in this very like the American TV viewing public).
What we are talking about here is an approach to meaning making that does not blend, but bundles. The brand message looks then like a cable cut open. The constituent meanings are not just distinct but color coded. At any point in the cable, we can see which is which. This is possible. Elizabeth turned into into a monarchy of astounding power and longevity in the face of challenges religious, military, geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, and conceptual. Geez, by this standard, the evening news ought to be clear sailing.
Johnson, Peter. 2006. Ratings Dip, but Couric Stays Upbeat. USA Today. October 29, 2006. here.
Several authors. n.d. Katie Couric. Wikipedia. here.