Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Failing Up

Once upon a time, baseball was one of the few businesses where you could "fail up" or at least keep failing as the same, well-paid level. The sport has a long list of players who bombed after signing big free-agent contracts, and managers who kept getting rehired to run big-league clubs--delivering the same, mediocre results.

But now you can also fail upward in broadcasting as well. The current example is Katie Couric, late of the CBS Evening News. After five years in the anchor chair that once belonged to Walter Cronkite, Ms. Couric left the network. There were reports that "The House that Murrow Built" tried to keep her on the roster, but it was a half-hearted effort at best. Couric's plans to leave the network began making the rounds months well before her official departure.

And the one-time "Tiffany Network" wasted no time in naming 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley as her replacement--and getting him on the air. In his debut broadcast Monday night, Mr. Pelley tried to maintain a low-key, no-nonsense approach. He did not mention it was his first night on The Evening News, and Pelley said absolutely nothing about his predecessor. Buh-bye, Katie.

But don't feel sorry for Ms. Couric. According to various industry publications and websites, The Perky One spent her last weeks at CBS entertaining offers from other networks--including her former employer. She eventually decided on ABC, where she will host a daytime talk show beginning in the Fall of 2012, and participate in other projects for the network's news division. Insiders say the 3 pm hour on the network's broadcast schedule has already been cleared for the Couric talk show, meaning that General Hospital, ABC's most popular soap opera, is facing cancellation to make room for Katie.

And if that's not enough, Ms. Couric's production company will be a co-owner of the daytime show, meaning she will split the profits with ABC. In other words, the daytime venture could earn Couric even more money than her CBS contract, which paid her $15 million a year to anchor the Evening News. That's the same sort of deal that created the foundation for Oprah's media empire and made Ms. Winfrey a billionaire. Obviously, Katie needs to add a few zeroes to her bank account to reach that tax bracket, but her new deal with ABC is very lucrative, to say the least.

Of course, everything hinges on the performance of that new talk show, which won't hit the airwaves for another 15 months. But ABC is apparently desperate for a new program that will attract female viewers, and provide a strong lead-in to local news programming. Many stations (including those owned by ABC) have replaced Oprah with more local newscasts. Those broadcasts are relatively cheap to produce--compared to the syndication fees paid for the Winfrey show--but many are struggling in the ratings. ABC and other station owners believe the time slot one occupied by Oprah would be best-filled by another talk show, fronted by a media "star." Enter Ms. Couric.

But, as we observed in recent posts, daytime TV is far different animal from the evening news, or a morning program, where Katie Couric made her mark. Oprah's ratings steadily decreased over the last decade of her run, and her program was actually #2 in daytime (behind Judge Judy) for the past three years. Couric claims the new show will allow her to do "the kind of storytelling I like," but unless she's willing to "Baby Daddy" segments (like Maury Povich) or interview The Most Dysfunctional Families in the World (a la Dr. Phil), her show will likely tank.

In fact, many local TV executives offered a ho-hum reaction when news of the Couric project was announced. Some cited the failure of another former Today anchor, Jane Pauley, who entered the talk show wars back in 2004 and lasted less than one year. According to Broadcasting and Cable , potential Couric affiliates have a number of concerns about the project, ranging from the host's recent stint in "hard news," to expected high fees for the program.

We'd also add that Ms. Couric's recent resume has been less-than-impressive. She was hired to pull the Evening News out of the ratings cellar, but during her tenure, the broadcast registered some of its lowest numbers in history, remains mired in third place. Meanwhile, the Today show never missed a beat, remaining in first place for over a decade--including the five years since Couric weighed anchor for CBS. Hmmm...maybe format is just as important as the talent in front of the camera.

Still, you've got to give some credit to Ms. Couric and her management team. They parlayed her dismal performance on the Evening News into an even bigger payday with ABC. Which brings us to another question: what will the network (and its corporate parent, Disney) do when the talk show bombs? Will they simply write a large check and send her packing, or try to get some return on their substantial investment? And, if they choose the latter option, where does Couric fit into the ABC News schedule?

For starters, you can forget about World News; Diane Sawyer shows no sign of giving up that chair anytime soon, and its doubtful that Couric would be a willing substitute after her own failure at CBS. They could park her at 20/20 (is it still on the air?), or send her back to morning TV. Katie Couric as co-anchor of Good Morning America, circa 2014? Don't bet against it. But wherever she lands, Couric is definitely "failing up." Only in American media.

1 comment:

F said...

I'm wondering if one of the reasons people like Couric never get their due is because the industry doesn't want to admit they were wrong about her all along. I mean even after Dan Rather made a fool of himself with the TANG investigation he is still treated as if he was once a serious journalist. Let's not forget, he was the first to announce (this was at the beginning of his career) that Kennedy was dead, even before the hospital had released that information. This guy is not a serious journalist, nor is Katie Couric. Yet they receive huge salaries and set the political and social tone in the country. I don't bother boycotting their sponsors; I just don't watch TV any longer.