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Interview with heroic Sullenberger keeps Couric in the spotlight

The Katie Couric blitz under way at CBS with prime-time specials may be working in Western New York. The local ratings for the "CBS Evening News" broadcast that she anchors have had a noticeable uptick in the last month.

The newscast remains No. 3 here despite getting a strong lead-in from first-place Channel 4 news. But Couric's newscast moved within a point of the ABC and NBC newscasts here in the last two weeks. It averaged about a 7 rating in January, up about 9 percent from the same period a year ago. And even better, the last three weeks of the month averaged a 7.5 rating.

It is hard to say whether Couric is being rewarded for her impressive work on the 2008 presidential campaign, which included her news-making interview with Gov. Sarah Palin, or if the prime-time specials are causing viewers to give her a second look.

One thing is clear: Couric should only be helped by the "60 Minutes" interview she did Sunday with Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the hero pilot of US Airways Flight 1549. After all, it sure can't hurt to hang around with a hero. The program had a 14.7 rating.

Couric did her best to bring out Sullenberger, a reluctant, low-key hero if there ever was one. If Gary Cooper were alive, he would be perfectly cast as Sully. The captain's inherent calmness was on display in a smartly packaged taped piece. The segment was given maximum emotional impact with the help of the more descriptive flight attendants and some moving letters sent to Sully by the passengers.

Read by Sullenberger's wife, Lorrie, the expressive letters included one from the son of a Holocaust survivor. "That's my favorite one," said Sully's wife.

"Mine, too," said Sullenberger.

There also was some lump-in-your throat moments after some of the survivors in North Carolina thanked Sully for saving their lives. One guy told the captain that he lost a brother on 9/1 1 and he didn't think his family could have taken another tragedy. Gulp.

Throughout the story, Sullenberger was almost eerily calm while he delivered answers that were as perfect as his instant response on the Jan. 15 flight. Asked about how he felt about being called a hero, Sullenberger said he understands the need for one in America today.

"I didn't feel comfortable embracing it, but I don't want to deny it. I don't want to diminish their thankful feeling toward me by telling them that they're wrong. I'm beginning to understand why they might feel that way. Something about this episode has captured people's imagination. I think they want good news. They want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will."

Wow. Can you imagine a better answer?

Monday morning, Sullenberger appeared to do something even a superhero might find difficult: He appeared on the CBS and ABC morning shows at the same time with his crew and some passengers. Obviously, one of the interviews was taped (I believe it was the one on CBS).

Besides putting a human face on the passengers and the stories, the Sullenberger blitz allowed the crew to address some misconceptions reported by the media. A flight attendant didn't open the door at the back of the airplane to allow water to enter the cabin, as had been reported. A passenger did it. The captain or his first officer didn't press the "ditch" button that might have kept water out of the cabin because they didn't have time, and it probably wouldn't have helped anyway.

The professionalism exhibited by Sullenberger (and perhaps his gray hair) throughout the interviews Sunday and Monday made me think of one of Couric's predecessors in the anchor seat.

Sullenberger now fills the role that Walter Cronkite once had as the most-trusted man in America.

*Of course, a hero also was brought down last weekend as New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez was the latest baseball star to deal with allegations that he used steroids.

The big story Saturday was a test case to see if the new MLB Network and its newest signee, Bob Costas, would be able to tell it like it is (as Howard Cosell used to say) on baseball's new cable channel.

And they passed the test brilliantly. Costas did a terrific and thorough job interviewing Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated about the story that first ran on the magazine's Web site. And in panel discussions with other members of the MLB Network roster, Costas raised all the salient points about the allegations and the possible mistakes made by the players' union that enabled the test results to become available and the story to be broken.

By covering am embarrassing story so well, MLB Network instantly illustrated it can be trusted.

*Channel 4 and Channel 23, the local CBS and CW affiliates, are now running crawls saying that they plan to drop their analog signals next Tuesday. They join Channel 7 (the ABC affiliate), Channel 29 (Fox affiliate) and WNYO (MyNetwork TV affiliate) in going ahead with the original date to switch exclusively to digital before Congress allowed stations to postpone it until June 12. Channel 2 (the NBC affiliate) is planning to keep the analog signal on until June 12.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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