"Today" will continue to look a lot like yesterday: Katie Couric, the embodiment of NBC's morning show for the past decade, has re-upped with the network until 2006, ending speculation that she might be leaving the couch.
Couric yesterday signed what industry sources said could be the richest deal ever for a television news personality. Her five-year pact will reportedly pay her about $65 million, or $13 million a year -- a full $1 million more than Barbara Walters's contract with ABC and about 30 percent more than "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw's. Her previous contract paid between $6 million and $7 million a year. NBC officials declined to discuss details.
The contract could earn the 44-year-old Couric many more millions through production and syndication deals in which she produces programs for the network and retains profits from them, the sources said.
Despite the agreement, it's not entirely clear how long Couric will actually be at "Today." In recent months she has been cutting back on her appearances in the third hour of the program, which airs from 7 to 10 a.m.
NBC dismissed industry speculation yesterday that Couric may not last on "Today" through 2003, let alone 2006.
"Katie is committed to the 'Today' show but she has done other things and will continue doing them," NBC News President Neal Shapiro said in an interview. "She's already done specials and 'Dateline' and there will be more of that in the future . . . The great thing is she has so much talent and range, expertise and interests."
Couric's agent, Alan Berger, said, "The intent is for Katie to be on 'Today' for the duration of the deal." Giving himself a slight out, Berger added, "She plans to keep doing it as long as it's fun and interesting, which it has been."
Couric attended a White House press party yesterday evening. She and "Today" mates Matt Lauer and Ann Curry were whisked onto the grounds in a chauffeured limousine, The Post's Ann Gerhart reports.
Asked about her new deal with NBC, Couric responded with a smile, "Oy!" She said she would remain on "Today" every morning throughout her contract, "God willing and the creek don't rise." She added, "I'm very happy to be staying with all the people at NBC."
Couric's name has come up as a possible replacement for Brokaw. She was a fill-in anchor on "NBC Nightly News" in August.
Couric was heavily pursued by other television companies who reportedly dangled talk and news programs in front of her. DreamWorks was so avid in pursuit of Couric that it reportedly handed her representatives a multimillion-dollar check, telling them that Couric could deposit it as soon as she signed with the company.
Re-signing Couric was critical for NBC, which could hardly afford to lose its perky morning star. The "Today" show, which Couric hosts with Lauer, recently has been seriously challenged by its competitors, ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" on CBS.
"Today" still leads among the morning news-chat shows, but it has shown signs of vulnerability since Sept. 11. During the first week of December, for instance, its lead over "GMA" was 630,000 viewers -- its narrowest margin since September 1996.
Overall for the season so far, however, Couric & Co. remain well ahead; NBC said it has averaged 6.2 million viewers a day since September, compared with 4.8 million for "GMA."
"Today" is perhaps NBC's most profitable regular program, generating as much as $300 million a year in gross profits. It and the "Tonight" show are the programs most closely associated with the network. Losing Couric just as "Today" is about to mark its 50th anniversary in mid-January would have been a symbolic black eye.
All of that gave Couric great leverage over NBC in their negotiations, which took place over the past month.
"The fact is that any time you make a change of star talent on a morning show, it hurts," said Steve Friedman, a former "Today" executive producer who now runs "The Early Show."
Added Friedman, "The last thing NBC wants to do is hurt its crown jewel. 'Today' and 'Tonight' carried them through thick and thin. Signing her before the 50th anniversary was a must. They did what they had to do."
Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.