After weeks of speculation in the press that “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric was mulling whether she wanted to make another career change – this time to become a become a syndicated talk-show host -- the Associated Press pulled the trigger on the story late Sunday, reporting Couric had indeed decided to step down from her exalted position as the First Woman to Solo Anchor a Big Three Newscast, in order to make a run at becoming The New Oprah.
The report cited an unnamed source and a CBS News rep said their talks with Couric were ongoing and they weren’t about to comment on “rumor or speculation,” to which Couric’s rep added, “Ditto.”
Couric’s contract to anchor “CBS Evening News” is set to expire in June.
Couric, for many years the darling of NBC’s “Today” show, took over as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” on a Tuesday in early September of 2006, replacing Bob Schieffer, who had been anchoring for 16 months to buffer Couric from CBS’s controversial push-out of longtime anchor Dan Rather.
A whopping 14 million people watched her debut, to see what a news anchor who’s reportedly being paid $15 million a year salary, looks like and does.
Couric’s competition, NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles Gibson, were left eating her dust that night, with average audiences of 7.8 million and 7.6 million, respectively.
A jubilant CBS News, which had been mired in third place for ages, pointed out that this was 84 percent better than the newscast did the same night one year earlier when Rather was behind the anchor desk.
But, then-CBS News president Sean McManus issued an I’m-really-happy-but-this-is-a-marathon-not-a-sprint quote to put the numbers in perspective. And, truer words were never spoken: Couric’s newscast is these days in third place in the ratings, sitting snugly behind Williams at NBC’s “Nightly News” and ABC’s “World News” – now anchored by Diane Sawyer, the Second Woman to Solely Anchor a Big Three Evening Newscast.
And McManus, who brought Couric over to CBS News, is no longer running that division. This past February, “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager was named chairman of CBS News; David Rhodes, the former head of U.S. TV operations for Bloomberg, was named president.
Under McManus, the evening newscast had been overhauled to showcase Couric’s talent as an interviewer and, as some TV critics noted, her great legs, which we saw a lot of during her “Today” reign.
Shortly before debuting on CBS’s evening newscast, Couric told a conference of reporters she took the job, not because she would become the first woman to solo anchor a Big Three newscast, but because of the “paucity of occasions” on which these jobs become available.
The same holds true in the syndicated talk show market right now. Oprah Winfrey, who has reigned supreme for more than two decades, is calling it quits at the end of this season, in order to focus her attention on her new cable network, Oprah Winfrey Network, which she recently launched with Silver Spring-based Discovery.
“Who will be The Next Oprah?” is the big question these days. Several have tossed their hats in the ring, including Ellen DeGeneres, who already has a syndicated talk show, and Anderson Cooper, who’s launching one in the fall. But no one has the stature of Couric, who for years was the queen of morning network newsfotainment TV -- perhaps the closest thing to what Oprah has done on her show all these years.
Among the bigger players in the syndication business: CBS. CBS Corp brings you “Dr. Phil” and Judge Judy.” Also, NBC, where Couric worked all those years on “Today” show; NBC is also said to be courting Couric, having tried and failed to launch a daytime talk show that starred another former “Today” co-anchor, Jane Pauley.
Couric, who has a book of essays collected from celebs that’s called, “The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives” coming out this month, went on David Letterman’s CBS late night show last month, and performed the role of Reluctant to Talk About Her Future, while simultaneously stoking the flame.
“Once you take that anchor chair, that’s what you do,” Letterman seemed to lecture her.
“Is that a CBS law?” Couric giggled.
“No, but it’s not like it’s a temporary gig,” Letterman snapped back.
“Look at Walter Cronkite, look at Tom Brokaw, look at Brian Williams, look at Peter Jennings,” Letterman continued, now definitely lecturing. “They get in it, they saddle up, and they ride into the sunset. Into the sunset!”
“There’s a period of adjustment to get accustomed to the trust and build up faith in the character of the person presenting the news. And then you can’t just pull the rug out from under the viewers,” Letterman added, sternly.