Although it may seem like heresy, given my profession, I have never had strong feelings about Katie Couric one way or another.
I found her mildly entertaining in her long-running gig on the “Today” show, valuable mainly for keeping Matt Lauer’s passive-aggressive alpha dog tendencies in check. I did not think she would blow us away as the host of “The CBS Evening News,” where even her big “get” -- Sarah Palin unable to name an American newspaper -- was the accidental result of a softball question.
I found Couric’s book “The Best Advice I Ever Got” to be a little on the “oh, lucky lil’ ol' me” side, sharply offset by her coldly calculated shilling of it while she coyly withheld the announcement of her post-evening news project. But I can honestly say that the percentage of my life spent thinking about Couric is only slightly higher than the percentage that Couric has, I presume, spent thinking about me.
So I was unprepared for the feeling of utter heartbreak that washed over me as I watched her open her new afternoon show “Katie” with a hard-hitting in-depth interview with Jessica Simpson about her “weight-loss journey.”
By which I think she meant “diet.”
OK, the actual opener involved Couric in a twin bed while snippets of her career played in her head; upon waking she exclaimed that she had “dreamed” she was the anchor of the evening news and now had her own show. How crazy was that? she asked the figure in the adjacent bed who rolled over to reveal Lauer reassuring her that it was all real.
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Then she came out to an adoring crowd, thanked everyone, reminded them of the span of her career, including the death of her husband 15 years ago, mentioned a few advisory tweets (“pee first,” “wear great shoes”) and explained, in her best TelePrompted delivery, that this new show would be about meeting interesting people, talking about things that mattered and having some fun.
But as bad as all that was, the Simpson interview was worse. Describing the performer as “a triple threat” (she’s a singer, a reality star and a reality judge, not an Oscar, Emmy and Grammy winner), Couric appeared utterly fascinated by Simpson’s experience with new motherhood and weight gain. She broke her own line of intense questioning only once to ask a Twitter-provided question (How do you focus on motherhood and losing weight when both occupations require so much ... focus?).
Other than that, for 25 solid minutes, it was all Couric asking, “How hard has it been to lose the weight?” and “How is new motherhood?” and what’s it like to see yourself splashed all over the tabloids?
Simpson, you will be happy to know, feels beautiful and lucky (she does have a $5-million Weight Watchers contract, which always helps).
The second half of the show was devoted to a similarly earnest interview with “my friend Sheryl Crow,” who discussed her brain tumor and how she felt watching old beau Lance Armstrong crash and burn. (“I haven’t spoken to him in a few years,” she said.)
So if you were expecting Couric to leverage her anchor experience by making her talk show even a little smarter than most, well, that’s not the direction she appears to be choosing. Which brings us back to the heartbreak. Felt not so much for her -- in how many venues can a single person expect to be compensated in the millions? -- as for us.
If Couric was the best and brightest candidate to replace Oprah, things are not looking good, America.
It must be noted that Winfrey did not arise, fully formed and resplendent like Athena from the head of Zeus. She built her persona and her audience one show, one year at a time, and surely Couric and her new batch of competitors should be allowed to do the same.
It’s a difficult job, talk show host, though it doesn’t look it (which is part of the job), and in many ways, it is one to which Couric would seem ideally suited. But only if she is willing to raise the bar of the conversation to a level that does not insult the intelligence of her viewership.
We do want to talk about things that matter, and even in the afternoon, that does not include Jessica Simpson’s new diet.
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