By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
NBC executives expect Katie Couric to leave the "Today" show and accept an offer from CBS to become the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast on her own, with an announcement of her departure likely as early as this week, according to well-placed sources at both networks and others familiar with the negotiations.
The tentative plan is for a two-step process in which Couric first announces her departure from NBC, which would like to give her a warm send-off after a decade in which she helped make "Today" the top-rated morning program. Meredith Vieira, co-host of ABC's "The View" and host of the syndicated "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," has been offered the job of replacing Couric and is seriously considering it, some of these sources say.
An announcement that Couric will succeed Bob Schieffer as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" will come later, in part because the final contractual details -- which will include a regular spot on "60 Minutes" -- have not been worked out, the sources say. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the contract talks have not been completed.
Couric's pending departure has been the focus of intense media speculation, both because of her celebrity and the historic nature of the move. Three women -- Barbara Walters at ABC, Connie Chung at CBS and Elizabeth Vargas, who was elevated in January at ABC's "World News Tonight" -- have co-anchored alongside men. But Couric would be the first woman in broadcast network history to fly solo at 6:30 p.m.
Couric's spokesman declined to comment yesterday, as did the press offices at NBC and CBS.
Couric, 49, who worked as a reporter at Washington's WRC before joining "Today" and becoming co-host in 1991, would be taking over a third-place evening newscast that has lately seen some ratings growth under Schieffer, who succeeded Dan Rather 13 months ago. Schieffer, 69, is a Couric supporter who has said he does not want to stay in the job indefinitely.
While Couric's NBC contract does not expire until early May, the network gave her permission to negotiate early with CBS in hopes of resolving the huge cloud hanging over its morning show. Both networks would like the matter settled before the May "upfront" meetings at which they make presentations to advertisers about the next season. Couric plans to work with NBC on the timing of her departure and is determined not to damage what has been a productive relationship with the network, say people familiar with her situation.
Couric is earning $15 million to $16 million a year under the contract she signed in 2001 and CBS is expected to exceed that. The domino effect of her decision will clearly impact all three networks.
Vieira, 49, who is being courted by NBC executives for Couric's seat, is a former "60 Minutes" correspondent with deep roots in network news. The other "Today" contenders are NBC insiders, White House reporter Campbell Brown, who also co-hosts "Weekend Today," and correspondent Natalie Morales.
Vieira, who has turned down other morning-show offers in the past, is said to be torn because she enjoys the two programs she hosts now and is concerned about the effect of a more demanding schedule on her husband, who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Vieira's agent, Michael Glantz, said yesterday: "Probably no one in this business is more qualified. Meredith is certainly flattered to be the subject of all this attention and certainly would have to consider all possibilities."
Barbara Walters, who founded the morning chat show "The View" and is a former co-host of "Today," said yesterday she would support Vieira no matter what her decision. "We would miss Meredith terribly, but I would understand if she decided to pursue this new and challenging opportunity . . . As for 'The View,' it is a very strong franchise and if Meredith did decide to leave, 'The View' would, of course, continue."
ABC's anchor situation remains unsettled because Bob Woodruff, Vargas's co-anchor, was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq in January and it is not clear when he might be able to return to the second-place broadcast. ABC plans to name a temporary co-anchor -- most likely "Good Morning America" co-host Charlie Gibson, according to sources at the network -- but that, in turn, might hurt the efforts of his colleague Diane Sawyer to overtake "Today" in the ratings.
Top-rated "NBC Nightly News" remains in the strongest position because Brian Williams, who succeeded Tom Brokaw in December 2004, was announced 2 1/2 years earlier and has clearly established himself in the job, especially with his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
An impassioned debate has flourished about whether the skills that have made Couric such a successful morning personality would translate on a terser, more tightly scripted evening newscast. There is a faction at CBS News that questions whether she is the right choice, how much the broadcast would change to accommodate her, and why the network should switch anchors now when Schieffer has lured as many as 740,000 new viewers.
After a 15-year run at "Today" in which Couric has interviewed everyone from President Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell to Bill Gates, Donald Trump and O.J. Simpson, her hard-news background is hardly in doubt, despite the breakfast-show requirements of cooking and fashion segments.
"A lot of her considerable talents don't translate to the evening news because they can't, by definition," said Erik Sorenson, a former MSNBC president who once produced the "CBS Evening News." "You cannot sing a cabaret number on the evening news. They won't have her ski. They won't have her dance.
"That said, she has a ton of other skills, interviewing and presiding over news coverage. She was on the air when 9/11 happened. And she brings a huge base of the same kind of people who watch evening news."
Emily Rooney, a former ABC News producer who hosts two shows at Boston's WGBH-TV, said: "People tell me they will watch the 'CBS Evening News' because they like her. She'll have a huge curiosity factor in the beginning that should last for months." In an evening-news role, Rooney said, "we're going to see a completely different person."
Geneva Overholser, a former Des Moines Register editor and Washington Post ombudsman, said she was "amazed" at how good an interviewer Couric was when Overholser appeared on "Today."
"The criticism of her -- she doesn't sound like an anchor, she doesn't look like an uncle, she's not Walter Cronkite -- well, maybe he was the right model for that time," Overholser said. Couric, she said, is "smart and capable," as well as "pretty and outgoing and womanly."
Television analyst Andrew Tyndall said the anchor job has two parts: reading the teleprompter and "sitting behind the desk when there's a crisis." Couric, he said, "is very good at doing live television" and "competent" as a news reader, although not as good as Schieffer.
"Today" co-anchor Matt Lauer is now a big enough star in his own right and "has proved he can carry the show while they break in a replacement," Tyndall added.
Couric has been something of a lightning rod for television critics. "There's a lot of jealousy because the woman has done quite well for herself, and there's still some residual sexism in the world," Sorenson said.
CBS did make one anchor move yesterday, elevating Russ Mitchell, co-anchor of the Saturday "Early Show" and one of Schieffer's principal substitutes, to anchor of the Sunday evening news. "Russ is one of our most versatile anchors," CBS News President Sean McManus said in a statement. "He has more than earned this position, and I'm pleased to further raise Russ's profile at CBS News."