Katie Couric's Future as CBS Anchor Under Discussion

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

Katie Couric and CBS News are talking for the first time about her giving up the anchor chair after the November election if her ratings don't improve, a course that could result in her leaving the network, sources familiar with the situation say.

These sources say the network's top executives believe Couric is doing an excellent job on the "CBS Evening News," but that both sides have grown frustrated with a situation in which she seems mired in third place and unable to use the range of talents that made her a superstar in morning television. They stress that a final decision won't be made until late summer at the earliest.

If Couric is eased out as anchor, CBS plans to offer her either a syndicated talk show or a full-time role on "60 Minutes." Otherwise, executives have signaled they would release her from her contract to seek a better deal elsewhere.

The discussions are described as amicable but suffused by a sense that CBS's five-year, $75 million gamble on the former "Today" co-host is not paying off, at least according to the cold, hard Nielsen ratings numbers on which advertising is sold. The executives involved recognize that a significant improvement in the ratings is unlikely. The sources, both within and outside CBS, described the situation on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive personnel issues involved.

If Couric were to leave, it would mean new turmoil for a news division that was rocked by the 2005 ouster of Dan Rather after CBS retracted his story about President Bush's National Guard service. She succeeded interim anchor Bob Schieffer in September 2006 on a wave of intense publicity but drove away some viewers with a feature-heavy format while also alienating a number of CBS journalists.

Couric admitted last week that the constricted nature of the 22-minute format had left little room for the humor and freewheeling approach that once defined her style. "It's really hard to show that side of my personality on the evening news, and that's a frustration for me," she said.

The internal discussions were first reported last night on the Wall Street Journal's Web site. In a statement, CBS said: "We are very proud of the 'CBS Evening News,' particularly our political coverage, and we have no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast." Couric said in a separate statement that she is "working hard and having fun" and "very proud of the show we put on every day."

For the season, "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams has averaged 9 million viewers and ABC's "World News" with Charlie Gibson 8.8 million. Couric's broadcast trails with 6.7 million.

CBS Chairman Les Moonves and CBS News President Sean McManus, who courted Couric when she was at NBC, have been involved in the discussions. While they believe the "Evening News" has improved in quality since a new executive producer, Rick Kaplan, adopted a more traditional hard-news format, they are not sure what else can be done to close the ratings gap.

Network executives are unsure whether Couric's difficulties are based in part on viewers' discomfort with the first solo female anchor of such a broadcast, sentiment that her personality is better suited to morning television or some other explanation. But they and Couric belatedly recognize that what they are doing is not working, the sources said.

CBS considers Couric, 51, a valuable franchise, whether she remains as anchor or not, but economics will be a factor. Network executives could not justify Couric's $15 million annual salary through 2011 if her only role were at "60 Minutes," and Couric has indicated she wants to ensure a successful launch if she assumes a new role, the sources said.

Couric had lunch earlier this year with CNN President Jon Klein, a former CBS executive, prompting speculation that he might be eyeing her as a potential successor to Larry King. But another source said the two are friends and that there are no plans to replace King, 74.

CBS executives have been considering possible anchor candidates for 2009 if Couric moves on, but such discussions have not moved beyond the talking stage.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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