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Did Katie Couric fail at CBS?

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

My theory is that David Let­ter­man scared her off. When he said to Katie Couric a few weeks ago, “Once you take the anchor chair, that’s what you do,” she panicked.

There’s nothing that will remind you of your mortality like being compared to Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw. “They get in it, they saddle up, and they ride into the sunset,” Letterman told her.

When you look at it that way, anchoring nightly news must seem like a death sentence.

Backup theory: If Katie had changed her name back to Katherine — I would even accept Kate — America would have taken her more seriously. And we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

But whatever the cause, the question is hanging there: Did Couric fail?

She certainly didn’t live up to the hype. CBS is still No. 3, and the new newscast looks a lot like the old one. So far this year, 1.98 million adults aged 25-54 are watching CBS, compared to ABC’s 2.43 million and NBC’s 2.94 million. Couric’s ratings are the lowest since Nielsen started recording them 19 years ago.

It’s not a woman thing. Diane Sawyer’s ABC newscast was the only one to gain viewers year-to-year.

But it’s not fair to blame Couric for her underwhelming run, says Michael Niederman, chair of Columbia College’s TV department. “I think she ended up doing a really good job,” he said. “That wasn’t the problem. It’s just that news anchors are not the iconic figures they once were.”

People are getting their news on their phone, on Facebook, on their iPad or from the incessant chatterer in the next office cubicle. “When I was a kid, the world stopped for the nightly news,” says Niederman. “And now it doesn’t. She hopped on a sinking ship.”

Couric can’t win, but we can give her credit for trying. Mary Ann Childers, the first woman to anchor a top-rated 10 p.m. Chicago newscast, says Couric’s is her newscast of choice. “Do you view success as the chance to make history or break a barrier?” Childers asks. “She did that.”

News is a business of change, but viewers tend to pigeonhole personalities. America was comfortable with Couric on the “Today” show. “We liked her in that role,” says Childers, now a communications consultant. “I think of Tim Weigel, who was this incredible sportscaster, but he was also a great reporter, a writer, an engaging personality and a smart guy. He tried his hand at news, but people missed the irreverent sportscaster.”

She’s tired of hearing that Couric didn’t have the gravitas to anchor a newscast. “Why, because she’s a short woman?” asks Childers.

You can’t question Couric’s capability or commitment. She enlightened us on Sarah Palin’s reading habits and impressed critics with her reporting from Egypt. This week, as rumors fester, she’s off to Iraq.

If Couric’s next move is a syndicated program, she could prove to be the perfect bridge between soft and serious. A smart talk show — and that means no spiritual vision boards — could cancel out the impact of shows like TLC’s “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” altogether. She could succeed where her “Today” predecessor Jane Pauley failed.

But there we go, unreasonably raising our expectations again.

Now rumors are building that Meredith Vieira may be leaving “Today,” taking some of the heat off Couric. “Meredith Vieira follows Katie Couric’s footsteps AGAIN,” sniped the New York Daily News. Ouch.

But it must be some small comfort to Couric. If she failed, she did it first.

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