Couric Is Set to Join CBS News as Anchor

Times Staff Writer

After 15 years on the “Today” show, Katie Couric is set to announce today that she plans to leave NBC to become the anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” according to sources familiar with the discussions.

With the long-anticipated move, Couric would make history as the first solo female anchor of a network evening newscast and bring instant star wattage to CBS, which is rebuilding its news division after airing a flawed report in 2004 about President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Her job switch also promises to inject a note of unpredictability into the race among the three evening newscasts, which have been rattled by change in the last year.


CBS is betting that Couric will lure more of the coveted younger viewers to its third-place evening news. Her hiring represents a major coup for CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves, who has been courting Couric for the last year and has advocated shaking up the evening news format. Despite declining ratings in recent years, the networks’ evening news shows still draw millions more viewers than cable news and the nightly news anchor post remains a coveted position.

Barring any last-minute changes, Couric plans to break the news herself that she is leaving “Today” on air at 7:30 a.m. (EST), a source said.

Today marks Couric’s 15th anniversary as co-anchor of the top-rated morning show, a date that would be a particularly poignant time to tell viewers of her future plans. On Tuesday, a NBC spokeswoman would confirm only that producers planned to air highlights of her tenure on today’s program.

Though Couric appears resolved to make the move, a few outstanding details were still being settled Tuesday -- notably, who would replace her on “Today.”

NBC officials, who want to pair the news of her departure with an announcement about her successor, have been negotiating with Meredith Vieira of ABC’s “The View” and were close to a deal worth $10 million a year with her, according to sources.

Meanwhile, CBS officials spent Tuesday finalizing the details of Couric’s contract. She would take over for popular interim anchor Bob Schieffer and do reports for the network’s venerable newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” The last round of negotiations was not expected to take long.

With those pieces falling into place, NBC is prepared for Couric to announce that she is departing “Today,” followed immediately by a news release from CBS announcing her new job, according to sources close to the process.

Her hiring represents a substantial investment -- and some risk -- for CBS, especially considering that the half-hour evening newscasts bring in substantially less revenue for the network news divisions than the morning shows, which run at least two hours.

Couric is the best-paid anchor in the country, earning close to $15 million a year under her contract at NBC.

Although she could earn more at NBC -- the network offered her a deal reportedly worth more than $20 million a year to remain -- CBS countered with a proposal comparable to her current annual salary, sources said.

In doing so, CBS officials are banking on their belief that Couric will draw more 25- to 54-year-old viewers, the key demographic used to determine advertising rates for the networks.

The “Today” co-anchor, who remains under contract at NBC until the end of May, probably would take over the CBS broadcast sometime after Labor Day, giving the network time to adjust the newscast to her strengths.

The program is not expected to change dramatically; rather, the broadcast probably will be adjusted to showcase Couric’s personable nature, much as Schieffer has loosened the format by chatting with correspondents at the end of segments.

Though some analysts have questioned whether viewers will embrace Couric as an evening anchor, other industry experts believe that her extensive experience doing live television has prepared her well for the post.

The speculation about the 49-year-old broadcaster’s next move has been the dominant discussion within the television industry for the last several months and reached a feverish buzz this week.

Although ABC’s Elizabeth Vargas has anchored the evening news by herself in the last month after her co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, was wounded in Iraq, Couric would officially be the first solo female anchor of a network broadcast. (CBS’ Connie Chung and ABC’s Barbara Walters both did stints as co-anchors alongside male counterparts.)

Her ascension would represent a dramatic change for CBS, where 69-year-old Schieffer has helmed the broadcast for the last year, and comes after a time of remarkable upheaval in the television news industry. In the last year and a half, all three veteran network anchors -- Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather -- left their posts in quick succession.

Schieffer, who took over the evening news on a temporary basis after Rather left the anchor desk, has made it clear that he does not want the job indefinitely. On Tuesday, he called Couric “terrific” and said she would be “a great addition.”

“I’m happy to offer her whatever help I can if she decides to come,” he said.

For Couric, who worked as NBC’s deputy Pentagon correspondent before becoming a national correspondent and then co-anchor of “Today,” the move to an evening newscast would allow her to return to hard news full time, a prospect that those close to her say she finds immensely appealing.

For their part, CBS officials hope that Couric’s star power will help move the newscast out of third place. Although the “CBS Evening News” has gained a substantial number of viewers under Schieffer, it averaged 7.73 million viewers last week -- 370,000 behind ABC’s “World News Tonight” and 1.2 million behind “NBC Nightly News,” according to Nielsen Media Research.

At NBC, meanwhile, officials are optimistic that they can bring in a new “Today” co-anchor to join Matt Lauer with minimal disruption. After facing a strong challenge from ABC’s “Good Morning America” last spring, the NBC show has rebounded and last week led its competition by an average of more than 1.3 million viewers.

With the 52-year-old Vieira, the network would get a seasoned broadcaster comfortable with the wide range required of morning television anchors. She spent a decade at CBS News, reporting for the now-defunct newsmagazine “West 57th” and “60 Minutes,” which declined to renew her part-time contract when she became pregnant with her second child. Vieira then worked as a national correspondent and anchored the “CBS Morning News” before jumping to ABC, where she served as co-host of ABC’s prime-time documentary show “Turning Point” with Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. In 1997, she left the news division to be the moderator of the daytime talk show “The View.” Five years later, she also signed up as the host of the syndicated game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Vieira’s contract on “The View” ends this summer, but her ongoing commitment to be the host of “Millionaire” for two more years has been a sticking point in negotiations for the “Today” post, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

Her willingness to consider the position at all comes as a surprise to many in the television industry. Vieira has repeatedly said she is not a “morning person” and has turned down offers to anchor morning television, largely because of the time it would take from her family -- her husband, writer Richard Cohen, who has multiple sclerosis, and their three children.

In September 2002, she told The Times that the Sept. 11 attacks confirmed for her that she no longer wanted to do hard news.

“All I wanted was to get my husband and go home,” she said then. “There wasn’t one bone in my body that wanted to pick up a camera and a notepad and head for the towers.”

In recent years, she may have had a change of heart. Vieira told the New York Times in January 2004, “I never say no to any opportunities,” adding that “a part of me really misses news.”

Earlier this week, her agent, Michael Glantz, declined to comment on whether she was interested in the position.

“She’s obviously flattered by all the conjecture,” he said. Glantz was out of the office Tuesday and unavailable for comment.

If NBC is unable to secure a deal with Vieira, “Weekend Today” co-anchor Campbell Brown, MSNBC anchor Natalie Morales and “Today” news anchor Ann Curry are considered contenders for the “Today” post.