Couric’s Rocky Path to a Likely Parting With CBS
By BILL CARTER
Published: April 10, 2011
For Katie Couric, the offer in 2006 to become the anchor of “CBSEvening News” came with another incentive, one she prized almost as highly, according to two of her friends: the chance to report for “60 Minutes,” the newsmagazine that for Ms. Couric stood for the kind of serious journalism she had always aspired to.
Regular appearances on “60 Minutes” were written into her $15 million-a-year contract with CBS, but once she arrived at the network, she found a chilly reception from some of the staff members at the venerable program. Some of Ms. Couric’s associates said that the chilliness seemed to stem from the top, the show’s executive producer, Jeff Fager. That view was disputed by people close to Mr. Fager, who said that Ms. Couric has praised his stewardship of her “60 Minutes” pieces.
Still, her appearances on the show have been fewer than she hoped for — averaging not even five a year. Even after the show won an Emmy for her interview with the airline pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, Ms. Couric’s visibility on the program never increased.
“They never let her learn the secret handshake there,” said one former NBC colleague.
In February, when Mr. Fager was named chairman of CBS News, his tepid response to the hugely public question of whether she might continue as anchor (Mr. Fager said he hadn’t thought about it yet) sent an additional signal to Ms. Couric and her representatives: it was time to move on.
Ms. Couric and CBS are now negotiating how and when to end her five-year run as anchor, one marked by early criticism, later journalistic successes and disappointing ratings over all.
Ms. Couric is pursuing the idea of her own syndicated talk show, possibly with her former “Today” show co-host, Matt Lauer.
Any such move would be intensely complicated. Mr. Lauer’s contract extends to the end of 2012, while the new show would be expected to start in September. And NBC can be counted on to make perhaps the biggest offer in television news history to keep him at “Today.”
But some people close to the participants conceded the notion had been “thrown around” between the former hosts — and is under serious consideration.
The linchpin in any new show pairing Ms. Couric and Mr. Lauer is Jeff Zucker, who before he was NBC’s chief executive put the two hosts together as executive producer of “Today.” Mr. Zucker had already been expected to be the main creative force behind a talk show with Ms. Couric.
“I think the three of them think it would be awesome to get together again,” one person close to the negotiations said. “It still seems more likely NBC will keep Matt. But it’s not out of the question.”
Even if a reunion with Mr. Lauer does not happen, Ms. Couric is all but certain to commit to the syndicated talk show and leave CBS News.
Almost none of the participants in the discussions about Ms. Couric’s future were willing to be interviewed about her tenure at the anchor desk while talks were continuing. But interviews with producers, network executives and friends of Ms. Couric (most of whom would not speak for the record because they did not want to alienate either the network or Ms. Couric) show that her celebrated hiring was part of a much larger experiment to lift the newscast out of the ratings basement in which it had languished for more than a decade.
For years, network news managers have tried to poach viewers from competitors by adding incremental features. Looking at the steady decline in the evening news audience — down more than 50 percent in the last 30 years — CBS believed its best, maybe only, hope was to throw out the traditional format and attract new viewers with a more interactive and accessible half-hour built around Ms. Couric.
“What we tried to do was change the game,” said Rome Hartman, the first executive producer on Ms. Couric’s newscast. “We tried to grow the whole pie.”
In an interview in the current issue of The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Couric acknowledged being “overly ambitious” and said that in retrospect she would have “given people what they were used to, a traditional newscast” before experimenting with new concepts.
CBS clearly counted on Ms. Couric’s star power and the breakthrough of a woman commanding the anchor chair to help capture those new viewers. But the network strategists did not anticipate how difficult it would be to reverse decades of ratings erosion, or that CBS would continue to decrease staff members at the news division.
They also did not foresee that internal resentment over Ms. Couric’s salary would continue to fester. Most of all, they did not anticipate the depth of the opposition they would face over their efforts to alter the newscast.
“Her hiring has often been described as a Hail Mary pass,” said Judy Muller, a former news correspondent for CBS and ABC, now an associate professor at the Annenberg journalism school at the University of Southern California. “I think it was much more akin to throwing a grenade. In an effort to try to create something completely new, CBS management just blew up the place.”
The CBS chief executive, Leslie Moonves, had remade the entertainment division into a success by bringing in established audience favorites like Ted Danson, Bill Cosby, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and, yes, Charlie Sheen, to build a prime-time powerhouse. In 2006, Mr. Moonves looked to do the same thing for his news division, which was still battered by attacks on its former anchor, Dan Rather. And the biggest possible news star — Ms. Couric — was about to become available.
Ms. Couric and Mr. Hartman immediately set out to remake the newscast. “For us it was: we’ve got nothing to lose,” said Mr. Hartman. “If you were in the position we were in, why not do something big and bold and ambitious?”
To take advantage of Ms. Couric’s interviewing skills, they brought guests onto the set with her. They emphasized cross-talk with correspondents, and introduced a segment called “Free Speech,” in which outside commentators would sound off.
Many longtime CBS News staff members — and outside critics — did not like the changes, and their reaction to Ms. Couric herself was not much better. Many staff members viewed her as haughty, surrounding herself with a small entourage she had imported from “Today,” according to one CBS employee.
Several rounds of layoffs reduced the news division by more than 100 jobs, close to 10 percent. With every cutback, Ms. Couric’s salary, the highest of the three evening anchors (Diane Sawyer makes a reported $12 million a year and Brian Williams $10 million), become a target of criticism.
As the audience totals settled into a third-place rut, dropping even behind those scored by her immediate predecessor, the interim anchor, Bob Schieffer, many of the more experimental ideas were scrapped. So was Mr. Hartman. (He now heads news for the BBCin the United States.) A longtime producer, Rick Kaplan, was brought in.
But “even though they finally returned it to a more traditional newscast, and in many ways a very fine newscast, they never convinced those people who left to come back,” Ms. Muller said.
Still, Ms. Couric scored victories. Some of her interviews made news, including one with the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez in 2007 in which he flatly denied using performance-enhancing drugs. Two years later, after he was compelled to acknowledge his steroid use, he apologized to her for lying.
She devoted time and energy to creating a popular online forum for commentaries and other coverage; the program won an Edward R. Murrow award for best newscast in 2008 and 2009, and three Emmy Awards in 2010.
Ms. Couric’s turnaround was cemented by her interview with Sarah Palin, then a vice presidential candidate, during the 2008 campaign. Ms. Palin seemed to be flummoxed by a series of direct questions, asked in low-key fashion, about things like Supreme Courtdecisions Ms. Palin might disagree with and which newspapers she read.
“I think she was really resurrected by the interview with Palin. It was a game changer in the campaign,” said Ms. Muller, who is on the committee that gave Ms. Couric a Walter Cronkite award for her impact on the 2008 election. “I think it really, really showed us what she is capable of. I play it for my journalism classes when I teach interviewing techniques.”
And Ms. Couric managed to do something unexpected: she lowered the median age for the program’s audience. After having the oldest network news audience under Mr. Rather, CBS now has the youngest — with a median age of 60.6. But there were not nearly enough of those younger viewers to compensate for the decline. In August 2006, Mr. Schieffer’s newscast reached seven million viewers. Last August, the newscast reached a new low of 4.89 million. And there is no evidence that the slide will stop anytime soon.
“We were going to try to bring people to the evening news who didn’t previously watch it,” Mr. Hartman said. “And it turned out to be an impossible thing to do.”