12 to Watch: Katie Couric

Jan 30, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The stakes in the poker game for the services of “Today” co-anchor Katie Couric are the highest in the annals of television news.

That’s not just because she’s already the highest-salaried news anchor ever-male or female-and has been since 2001, when NBC renewed her contract at more than $14 million per year.

All three players-Ms. Couric, who is at the top of her game; NBC, which does not have as bright a morning star as Ms. Couric in the wings; and CBS, which wishes to make Ms. Couric its “Evening News” star-have a lot at risk no matter how the game ends.

At this point, money-the offers reportedly have ranged as high as $20 million per year-is the least of Ms. Couric’s considerations. But she has never considered a bigger professional gamble in her career, which started with stints at CNN (where she was famously booed off the air by an executive) and in local news before she landed at NBC News, where she made it from Pentagon correspondent to Bryant Gumbel’s “Today” co-anchor in less than three years.

Ms. Couric’s itch to be a flagship anchor can’t be scratched at NBC News, which spent a decade grooming Brian Williams to succeed Tom Brokaw at the “Nightly News” desk and is reaping the ratings rewards a year after the glitch-free transition.

Even after a year in which the Princess of Perk was given a royal dressing-down by critics and pundits eager to blame her for the close call longtime ratings leader “Today” had in the ratings race with ABC’s second-ranked “Good Morning America” last season, “Today” has reasserted itself as the biggest of network cash cows-as morning shows have come to be known.

Ms. Couric could reasonably count on remaining for as long as she chooses at NBC and “Today,” whose viewers have shared with her the birth of her two children, the loss of husband Jay Monahan to colon cancer and her metamorphosis into a role model for the woman who wants to believe that (nearly) 50 is the new 30.

If Ms. Couric leaves the “Today” family nest for CBS News, it’s for a job she’s never done, except as a substitute, one that does not play to her proven on-air strengths-and this at a news division that’s a fixer-upper and a network whose historic strengths are in regions where Ms. Couric’s appeal is considered more problematic.

Less than extreme success as “Evening News” anchor, on the order of overtaking the team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff on ABC’s revamped “World News Tonight,” likely would be declared a failure for CBS News, especially in this age of relentless gossipy coverage of the TV news wars.

Sources who know Ms. Couric well describe her as genuinely conflicted.

For CBS News, the stakes also are huge. If the network lands Ms. Couric, the division once fronted by steely Dan Rather has to remake itself to best suit her, a proposition that is costly and risky. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, CBS News and Ms. Couric will lose precious bounce.

If NBC retains the services of Ms. Couric, CBS will have egg on its face to show for its two-year courtship and will be back to wishing on smaller or more traditional stars.

NBC’s position is that it has the home team advantage with Ms. Couric and a backup plan-built around undersung Matt Lauer and other players in the ensemble-if she leaves.

The problem for both NBC and CBS is there really isn’t another Katie Couric out there.

And for Ms. Couric, there’s the dicey reality that tomorrow does not necessarily promise another “Today.”

At A Glance

Title: Co-anchor of NBC’s “Today”

How long in current position: Two months shy of 15 years

Year of birth: 1957

Place of birth: Arlington, Va.

What to watch for: Beyond the question of whether she stays at NBC News or goes to CBS News, and for how much money, there is the question of the ripple effects her decision will have on the two news organizations vying for her.

Who knew? Ms. Couric has displayed her ability to carry a tune more than once on “Today,” including performing a duet with Bette Midler. But she also plays piano by ear.