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Harry Smith's the best fit for a CBS Evening News of the near future

Harry Smith anchoring a recent edition of the CBS Evening News. Photo: Ed Bark

Put it this way. America is yet to see a bald man emerge as the captain of a network dinner hour newscast.

Harry Smith eminently qualifies. He also would be a calming yet authoritative full-time anchor of the CBS Evening News, where Katie Couric's days apparently are numbered as she plots a future course that likely will land her a talk show of some sort after her contract expires on June 4th.

Couric will leave the Evening News in third place nationally, which is where it was when she signed on nearly five years ago. But in D-FW, CBS' flagship 5:30 p.m. newscast has markedly improved its standing over the past year. It's vaulted from third place in the February 2010 ratings "sweeps" (with an average of 110,811 viewers) to a very narrow first-place finish ahead of ABC's World News with an uptick to 151,673 viewers in the most recent February sweeps.

Still, Couric clearly is itchy to move on to something else. And Smith is one of the perceived in-house favorites to succeed her, along with 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley and weekend anchor Russ Mitchell.

Coincidentally, all three have past D-FW ties.

Pelley worked at both NBC5 and WFAA8 before moving to CBS in 1989. His wife is former NBC5 reporter Jane Boone.

Mitchell anchored at WFAA8 from 1983-'85 before moving to a St. Louis station. He signed up with the CBS network in 1992.

Smith, who is married to former WFAA8 sports anchor/reporter Andrea Joyce, joined CBS News in 1986 as a Dallas-based reporter. He since has worked virtually everywhere at the network, including a recent nine-year stint with the CBS Early Show. He's lately been filling in wherever asked, including his current duties as Couric's principal sub on the Evening News.

Here's the case for giving Smith an upgrade to permanent status.

When a tarnished Dan Rather left the Evening News, old warhorse Bob Schieffer was named interim anchor, assuming the equivalent of Jerry Ford's healing role after Watergate. Ratings improved to the point where CBS wanted the ancient mariner to stay on indefinitely. But Schieffer demurred in favor of returning to his Washington home and staying with Face the Nation. So Couric was hired with the idea of youthifying the broadcast and making it more relevant to viewers who hadn't yet encountered their first liver spots.

That didn't work, and never will. Audiences for the three dinner hour network newscasts may be dwindling over time. But there's still a core group of more than 20 million loyalists per night, according to Nielsen Media Research. They may not be getting any younger, but you can pretty much count on them in times when the three cable news networks are sophomoric turn-offs more often than not. ABC, CBS and NBC still offer solid half-hour digests of mostly real news without any transparent politicizing of same.

Smith, now 59, is better suited to this task than any of his current colleagues at CBS News. You might even call him avuncular, a trait that Walter Cronkite had down the homestretch and Schieffer had from the start of his Evening News tour of duty. Pelley and Mitchell have both put in their time, but don't have that comfy old chair appeal that Smith can bring to living rooms.

Most network news viewers, the great majority of them 50 years old and upward, are not particularly receptive to cute or jaunty. They want solid and reliable, but hold the stuffy. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams might go against that grain a bit. But his matinee idol looks are balanced by an ability to relate and commiserate. He has the look and feel of a guy who'd help Aunt Edna carry her groceries to the car. Such a nice young man.

Smith won't win any beauty contests. But neither will Charles Gibson, who wore very well during his relatively brief tenure as World News anchor before retiring and virtually vanishing without a trace.

Both of these guys first accentuated their folksiness during long grinds on their respective networks' morning shows. As did Williams' predecessor, Tom Brokaw, and Gibson's successor, Diane Sawyer.

Now it should be Smith's turn to percolate at the dinner hour. Everyone might not be wild about Harry. But really, what's not to like about him?