Couric Has Everyone Planning

EntertainmentTelevisionTelevision IndustryABCToday (tv program)

Several key details remain to be resolved before "Today" co-anchor Katie Couric would leave her post and take over the "CBS Evening News," including the final negotiations of what her contract would be at the network.

But that hasn't stopped executives across the television news industry, who have been bracing for the NBC star to make the jump and planning their countermoves accordingly.

NBC officials are settling on a candidate to replace her on the top-rated morning show, hoping to replicate the kind of seamless transition that marked Tom Brokaw's handoff to Brian Williams in 2004. Over at CBS, the newsroom is contemplating how the evening newscast currently helmed by 69-year-old anchor Bob Schieffer would change with 49-year-old Couric at the desk.

ABC, meanwhile, is dealing with its own dilemma: which "Good Morning America" co-anchor the network can move to prop up "World News Tonight" without weakening the morning show, which could be competing with a Couric-less "Today."

Matthew Hiltzik, a spokesman for Couric, declined to comment on her plans. But sources familiar with the situation say that, after 15 years at "Today," she is intrigued with the opportunities afforded by making such a switch, particularly the chance to return to hard news full time and do longer pieces for CBS' fabled "60 Minutes." An announcement could come as soon as this week; her contract at NBC expires at the end of May.

Throughout the television industry, the buzz about Couric's possible move has risen to a remarkable pitch, especially considering that her possible job shift follows a tumultuous period in which all three networks changed anchors, either through retirement (NBC's Brokaw and CBS' Dan Rather) or death (ABC's Peter Jennings). Although their departures generated substantial commentary on the state of the evening news, that coverage has been far eclipsed by the frenzied speculation about the "Today" co-anchor. One popular media blog, fishbowlNY, is even running a daily "Katie Couric Contract Countdown," complete with odds on whether she will make the move.

Why all the fuss? For better or worse, the intimate setting of morning television — in which personality is just as important as news chops — has made Couric more than just a broadcaster in the eyes of the public.

"This is a celebrity story," said network news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

For all of the feverish conjecture about what she might do, some industry experts believe if Couric becomes the first sole female anchor of the evening news, it might not have a big effect on the competition among the three newscasts, whose ratings were not greatly altered by the loss of Brokaw, Jennings and Rather.

"The impact would not be as profound as many people think," said former NBC News executive Joe Angotti, who teaches communications at Illinois' Monmouth College. "I'm not sure the personality of evening anchors are that significant anymore."

Indeed, the rankings of the evening newscasts have remained the same — NBC in first, followed by ABC and then CBS — despite the fact that different anchors now occupy the desks than in December 2004.

Still, there are signs that viewers are sampling different broadcasts, much to the delight of "CBS Evening News," which appears to be regaining some of the audience it lost in the wake of Rather's much-criticized report about President Bush's service in the Texas Air Guard. So far this season, CBS has averaged 7.7 million viewers, 200,000 more than at this point last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Meanwhile, "NBC Nightly News" is down by 700,000 viewers, and ABC's "World News Tonight" has lost 900,000.

CBS' recent gains have restored morale within the once-beleaguered newsroom, especially as executives have made a raft of new hires. Last week, CBS News President Sean McManus brought aboard veteran morning television producer Steve Friedman to reinvigorate the morning programming. Network officials now hope that landing a star like Couric would help propel the evening newscast out of third place.

Many editorial employees are heartened that the network is pursuing talent as high-profile as the "Today" co-anchor, but the anticipation is tinged with apprehension about how the audience would respond to such a dramatic change in anchors, according to several CBS staffers.

"I don't think there's any question that there's some worry now about what the reaction might be," said one newsroom employee, who did not want to be named when speaking about internal matters at the network.

Some of that anxiety has been fueled by open skepticism among television news observers about whether Couric would be the right fit for "CBS Evening News."

"My sense is that Katie's identity has been so associated with the morning news format and that kind of anchor engagement that it would be difficult for her to make that transition and have the same kind of dominance that she enjoys in the morning," said Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent who now chairs Boston University's department of journalism.

However, other broadcasters have successfully made a similar transition from morning to evening — most notably Brokaw, who was co-anchor of "Today" for five years before taking over "NBC Nightly News." Some analysts view Couric's current job as valuable training for the kind of off-the-cuff broadcasting required of a lead anchor during breaking-news situations.

"She knows how to do live television," Tyndall noted. "She would be the one doing the nine-hour stints in the anchor chair, and doing morning television prepares you for that."

While Couric weighs whether to take the CBS post, NBC has been developing a contingency plan and evaluating possible successors. "Weekend Today" co-anchor Campbell Brown and MSNBC anchor Natalie Morales — both of whom filled in for Couric while she was on vacation last week — along with Meredith Vieira of ABC's "The View" are widely considered the leading candidates for the job.

NBC officials declined to comment on their plans, except to note "Today's" large lead over second-place "Good Morning America" — a margin of 1.3 million viewers in the most recent weekly rating report.

"It is the crown jewel of morning news, and if there is to be any change there, we will operate from a position of strength," said NBC News President Steve Capus. "We are blessed to have such a strong platform and such strong players as possibilities. We'll see what happens."

Meanwhile, ABC continues to cope with its own internal upheaval, triggered by two heart-breaking setbacks in the last year. In August, Jennings died after a four-month battle with lung cancer. Co-anchors Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff officially took over for him in January, a pairing that was interrupted when Woodruff was seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq weeks later.

Network officials, hopeful that Woodruff will be able to eventually return, are still trying to sort out how to replace him in the near future. "Good Morning America" co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson, who took turns subbing for Woodruff in February, have been discussed as possible candidates to take over in a more long-term capacity, with Gibson increasingly seen as the news division's choice.

In making the decision, ABC executives are trying to calculate the effect the move would have on the morning program, which came close to overtaking "Today" last spring but has since fallen back. If Couric leaves NBC, some believe ABC would have another opening to catch up.

But officials maintain that such a calculation has not entered into their decision-making.

"We have great respect for our competition," said Jon Banner, executive producer of "World News Tonight." "But their personal issues have no impact on the job we're all here to do, which is to put on the best broadcast each and every day."

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