Couric a Blink Away From Landmark Gig

Apr 3, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Katie Couric’s deal to move to CBS News is completed in principle, and an announcement that she is leaving NBC might come as early as this week.

That’s the quiet buzz among sources familiar with assorted moving parts connected to the deal to transform Ms. Couric from co-anchor of the No. 1 morning show “Today” to anchor of the third-place-but-growing “CBS Evening News.” In taking on the CBS job, Ms. Couric would be the first female to serve as sole anchor of a network flagship newscast.

The first announcement should be that Ms. Couric is leaving the Peacock Network and the viewers who have spent their mornings with Ms. Couric for 15 years.

The official announcement of CBS’s dream come true-landing Ms. Couric as its evening star- would follow, perhaps next week. Ms. Couric’s personal publicist, Matthew Hiltzik of Freud Communications, declined to comment to TelevisionWeek last week, as did representatives of NBC News and CBS News.

Ms. Couric’s $65 million contract, under which NBC paid her more than $15 million per year, is not up until the end of May.

Because Ms. Couric is the biggest star-and collects the biggest paycheck-in TV news, there have been months of frenzied speculation and false rumors about every angle, tincluding whether her ambition to sleep later and become the first female anchor to solo as the top network anchor was stronger than her long friendship with Jeff Zucker, the former “Today” executive producer who now is the president of the NBC Universal Television Group.

A source close to Ms. Couric said last week that “Nothing is planned as of now.”

However, both NBC and CBS need Ms. Couric’s decision to be announced sooner rather than later.

Each network needs to make plans for the long-term futures of its respective news programs and for the mid-May upfront extravaganzas at which new stars and programs for the 2006-07 season are touted to kick off the preseason sales of the bulk of advertising time.

NBC arguably has more at stake than CBS in the situation.

NBC can’t afford to run off viewers by making the wrong choice of successor to Ms. Couric on the cushy couch next to Matt Lauer, Ms. Couric’s polished co-anchor for the last nine-plus years. Neither does it want to lose any of the in-house contenders, especially the well-regarded “Weekend Today” co-anchor Campbell Brown, who might feel their career hopes have been thwarted.

Meredith Vieira, a correspondent turned co-host of ABC’s “The View” and host of Buena Vista Television’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” has become regarded in recent weeks as the dark horse to beat as Ms. Couric’s replacement on “Today.”

CBS may have the less complicated personnel task. Bob Schieffer ascended to the “Evening News” anchor desk 13 months ago, when Dan Rather stepped down as a casualty of a flawed story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard Service. Mr. Schieffer knew the “Evening News” assignment was temporary. Mr. Schieffer has publicly supported the quest by CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves and CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus to woo Ms. Couric to CBS News. The newscast has won 740,000 new viewers in the last year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

To be sure, much money rides on CBS’s gamble that Ms. Couric can successfully make the leap from TV best friend to TV navigator of weighty news stories. But “Evening News” is not CBS News’ cash cow. That distinction has been long held by “60 Minutes,” the most successful prime-time newsmagazine ever on TV.

“Today,” on the other hand, is NBC’s cash cow and the goose that lays golden eggs for three hours every weekday morning, bringing in more than a reported $550 million in advertising revenue annually.