September 05, 2006 08:10 PM

The CBS Evening News With Katie Couric launched its historic half-hour with a new theme by Oscar-winning composer James Horner. “Katie Couric Wreathed in Trim Clouds of Glory,” as it might be called, is a brisk, rolling little anthem of horns, drums and timpani, and in some ways it perfectly matches the anchor: She has the proper seriousness to have been chosen the networks’ first solo evening news anchorwoman, and to that she adds a welcome, countervailing crispness.

However, James Horner isn t composing the headlines, or else Couric s initial broadcast might have swelled to something grander than Annie Liebovitz photos of Suri Cruise in the new Vanity Fair. Frankly, it was all very unedifying.

Katie Cronkite
None other than legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite intoned Couric s introduction as the opening credits ended – that voice, granite and august, is still unmistakable – but the production didn t serve her with nearly as much dignity. This is what the script had Couric say into the camera as she led into the night s first big story, a report on the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “For many Americans today, it was back to work and back to school. But in the war on terror you have to wonder: Is it back to the drawing board?”

What you have to wonder is what sloppy process of association allows a writer to thread a cheap thought from American schoolchildren to the Taliban.

And Couric was sometimes undercut by production values: As she read the news, her blonde hair was often framed from behind by a world map mounted on panel roughly the color of orange sherbet. Well, this bleached her out. She also tended to keep her chin tilted down with the light emphasizing her eyes. Well, this made her look like Maria Shriver.

The CBS Evening News Without Katie Couric
Still, the fact is that much of a news broadcast has little or nothing to do with the anchor. It may not even have much to do with actual news. Couric, interviewed for a piece in the Los Angeles Times, said that the CBS Evening News will be experimenting with new segments. And, as the Times noted, these will not necessarily beef up correspondents’ airtime.

One segment, a sort of guest editorial spot called “Free Speech,” allowed documentarian Morgan Spurlock to spurt populist drivel about the great American public rising above – something. I think his subject was political extremism in television news, but he wasn t specific. It was like having a Big Brother contestant sub for Andy Rooney.

Then came “Snapshots,” which featured baby pictures of Prince Charles from 1949 and ultimately seemed more like a ruse to introduce those photos of Suri Cruise. Who looks just like her father. But with no teeth. We seemed to have been magically transported back to Today. Maybe that’s the idea. Today With Katie Couric, Only Tonight.

Courage! Rain Check!
In the end, Couric wasn t prepared even to offer an official personal signoff. Instead she wasted still more time introducing clips of what other anchors had said in the past. Then she encouraged viewers to send in their suggestions online. Finally, she opted for a simple “I hope to see you tomorrow night” – said with a rescuing note of such modesty and charm that she might. Maybe.

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