Saturday, March 26, 2011

Buh-Bye Katie

Five years after it began with much fanfare and anticipation, the Katie Couric era at CBS is drawing to a close.

Howard Kurtz of The Daily Beast reported yesterday that Ms. Couric is "almost certain" to leave the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News in June. Meanwhile, the search for her replacement is already underway, while The Perky One contemplates her future plans, including a possible foray into daytime TV.

News of Couric's departure came as a bit of a surprise. Reports in recent weeks suggested that CBS wanted to extend her contract, keeping her on the Evening News through the 2012 political season. If Howard Kurtz is correct--and no one at CBS has disputed his report--the network is bringing the Couric experiment to a close, after an investment of four years, and more than $60 million in compensation alone.

What did The House that Murrow Built get for its money? Lousy ratings, a bit of publicity, and that's about it. With Couric in the anchor chair, the Evening News remained mired in third place, well behind front-runner NBC and second-place ABC. CBS executives liked to brag about the awards won by the Evening News with Couric as anchor, but they added nothing to the bottom line. Meanwhile, affiliates complained Couric's low ratings left them at a disadvantage with competitors, particularly in markets where the Evening News airs before local news broadcasts.

Indeed, the CBS broadcast generates less revenue (and profits) than NBC Nightly News or ABC's World News, with no signs of improvement. That alone made it impossible to keep Couric at her current salary. Even pundits who predicted Couric would stay at CBS admitted that any new deal would include a significant salary cut. Why pay $15 million a year for a last-place anchor when you could put someone else in the chair--at less than half her salary--and generate similar ratings?

Early speculation about a successor is focused on Scott Pelley, the former CBS White House Correspondent who now serves as a co-anchor for 60 Minutes. While no one disputes his hard news credentials, his live anchoring experience is limited. One CBS insider noted that Pelley was rejected in the past for the morning, evening and weekend anchor slots before landing on the network's flagship news program. His problem? A perceived lack of personality and charisma, based on previous focus group testing. Those traits were viewed as less of a liability on 60 Minutes, which plays to his strengths as a reporter and interviewer.

But Pelley isn't the only candidate. The new Chairman of CBS News (Jeff Fager) and his division president, David Rhodes, are reportedly looking at other possibilities. Mr. Fager, who doubles as executive producer of 60 Minutes is a long-time fixture at CBS, but David Rhodes cut his teeth at Fox News Channel, where he climbed the ranks from the assignment desk to the executive suite. Mr. Rhodes was instrumental in the rise of FNC and he was clearly influenced by Ailes's bold, take-no-prisoners style. How that will work at CBS is anyone's guess, but some have suggested that Rhodes might favor an outsider for the anchor chair, someone like his former FNC colleague, Shepard Smith.

Ol' Shep in the anchor chair once occupied by Uncle Walter? Yeah, it's a stretch, but times have changed. Smith is one of the few anchors who's managed to build and hold an audience over the past decade, though he clearly benefited from the rise of FNC as the dominant force in cable news. But even before Fox became #1, Smith was trouncing Brian Williams in the cable ratings, a fact not lost on those searching for Couric's replacement. Smith currently makes an estimated $8 million a year at FNC; even with a "raise" from CBS, he'd still be cheaper than Couric, and there's some belief that he would attract a younger audience than the current Evening News anchor.

On the other hand, Smith's skills as a foreign correspondent and political reporter are considered weak. He doesn't anchor FNC's election coverage (a task handled by Bret Baier) and his overseas reporting has been limited to coverage of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah; the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and in recent weeks, the disaster in Japan. However, Smith is a master at ad-libbing and extended live coverage of breaking news--essential skills for any network anchor.

If we had to venture a guess, we'd say that CBS will ultimately select someone like Scott Pelley or former morning show anchor Harry Smith, proven commodities who are far less expensive than Ms. Couric. Not that it really matters; it takes years for a network newscast to show any movement in the ratings, and viewers are deserting the "dinner hour" broadcasts in droves. As we noted years ago, Tom Brokaw had a larger audience anchoring a third place Nightly News in the 1980s than he did with a #1 broadcast in 2004. Whoever winds up in the CBS chair may very well be the last anchor of the Evening News.

As for Ms. Couric, she's apparently angling to be the next Oprah. With Winfrey departing daytime TV for her struggling cable network, the field for new talk shows is wide open. But Katie will discover that the world of syndicated TV is even more cutthroat than the evening news wars.

True, daytime TV can be exceptionally lucrative. Through salary, syndication fees and profit-sharing Couric can make a fortune (the reigning queen of daytime TV, Judge Judy, earns $48 million a year), but only if she delivers. Local stations won't stick with a talk show that fails to attract an audience, particularly if it serves as a lead-in for their all-important local news. Katie and her program will have about a year to establish themselves, or the affiliates will move on to something else. Given that reality, Couric could find herself "permanently retired" from the business in another two years, wishing she'd never left that comfortable couch on the "Today Show."

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