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Sunday, April 13, 2008

International Television: Katie Couric's Job at CBS (News) Fate TBD?

Couric’s Fate Was Topic A in CBS Suite

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A wide-ranging discussion in February about Katie Couric’s future as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” threatened on Thursday to turn her into a virtual lame duck in the job.

The discussion took place in New York on Feb. 28 and involved four people: Ms. Couric; her agent, Alan Berger of the Creative Artists Agency; Sean McManus, the president of CBS News; and Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS. The meeting took place in Mr. Moonves’s office.

The conversation included what one participant said was some “idle talk and musings” about the big question hanging over CBS News: should Ms. Couric leave her position as the news anchor after the presidential election, a development that had long been rumored.

No one involved in the meeting or briefed on its particulars would be identified for attribution because of the delicate nature of the talks. But Ms. Couric discussed several things she might do if she left the anchor post, according to the executives, including a daily talk show to be syndicated by CBS, or replacing Larry King in a prime-time position on CNN. (Ms. Couric was said to have dismissed out of hand the suggestion that she could return to morning television on the network’s perennially troubled “Early Show.”)

But the conclusion drawn from the meeting, the executives said, was that no decision about the anchor job would be made until after the presidential election and inauguration.

However, rumors from CBS News and reported in the news media may have, inadvertently or not, done what the meeting failed to do: ensured Ms. Couric’s early departure.

Though some people close to Ms. Couric, as well as some professional associates, said Thursday they believed that it was now likely she would not remain as anchor through the election, and might even leave in the next few weeks, that point was adamantly denied by the senior executives closest to the decision.

“Katie is absolutely going to continue as anchor until the inauguration and very possibly beyond that,” one said.

The executives involved in the situation said that no discussions of Ms. Couric’s future had taken place since the February meeting. Yet the news that she and CBS were even considering an end to the first effort to have a woman as the primary anchor of a network news division surfaced in press reports in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere on Thursday, creating a situation that appeared to leave Ms. Couric vulnerable.

“She’s not a definite lame duck,” a senior executive who has been close to the situation said. “Nothing is decided.”

But after the great fanfare that accompanied her arrival at CBS (with a five-year contract at a salary of $15 million a year) and then a year and a half of disappointing ratings, even the hint that Ms. Couric might depart was hardly a development that CBS News needs.

The news division has been buffeted by a string of bad decisions and strange turns over the last several years, beginning with the firestorm over a report in 2004 on the weeknight edition of “60 Minutes” about President Bush’s National Guard service, and most recently including a near-revolt by staff members over the hiring of an executive producer on the “Early Show” — which resulted in her firing and yet another reassessment for that program.

Lawrence K. Grossman, former president of NBC News and of PBS, said CBS’s confirmation that it was discussing the possibility of replacing Ms. Couric was disconcerting and disruptive, and needed to be viewed in a broader context.

"It suggests the decline and fall of network news, which should come as no surprise,” Mr. Grossman said.

While networks have replaced evening news anchors in the past — including Peter Jennings (in his first incarnation as an anchor on ABC in the 1960s), as well as Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner (who failed as an ABC anchor team) — Mr. Grossman noted that the future of those broadcasts, as well as the priority of news for the television networks, was never in doubt.

That is no longer true, he said, amid budget cuts at all the news divisions and recent reports that CBS News (as well as ABC News) had, at least on one occasion, discussed contracting out some news-gathering operations to CNN.

It is now assumed by most television executives that network news divisions cannot survive long term on their own, and may be compelled to strike partnerships with a cable news operation along the lines of television’s leading news division, NBC, which now relies on its sister cable network, MSNBC, for most of its news gathering.

One of the big reasons Mr. Moonves sought to hire Ms. Couric after her long success as an anchor on NBC’s “Today” show was the hope that her star power would revive the diminishing franchise of the network evening newscast. Ms. Couric has not shortchanged CBS in terms of star power — as the media uproar surrounding her rumored departure from the anchor chair proved.

But the audience levels have been, by any measure, disappointing. For the season the CBS newscast, already a distant third, has lost about 11 percent of its viewers.

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According to some of Ms. Couric’s associates, such figures have left her disappointed as well. CBS has tried two different executive producers — and approaches — on her newscast, one intended to highlight the personable style she brought from “Today,” the other to burnish her hard news skills. Neither has been able to revive the “CBS Evening News,” which has been in last place among the three big broadcast networks for 12 years.

Some of Ms. Couric’s friends have described her as miserable, while others say she has adopted a stoic reaction to what has happened. Through a representative, Ms. Couric declined to comment on Thursday.

“She’s fine,” an associate said. “She’s annoyed at all the stories being leaked about her. But she’s not angry. You could say she’s in a good position now. She’s got zero to lose.”

Another associate said Ms. Couric would hardly have to worry about a new job, no matter what happens at CBS. “She’d have a job in five minutes,” the associate said.

But it might not be Larry King’s job — a position that executives who were present at the February meeting in Mr. Moonves’s office said she discussed as a possible exit strategy. Ms. Couric is close personally with Mr. King’s executive producer, Wendy Walker Whitworth, and Mr. King’s latest contract will expire next summer — seemingly perfect timing for Ms. Couric to step in. But an executive close to Mr. King said CNN would soon extend his contract at the network.

A CNN spokeswoman, Christa Robinson, declared, “Larry is going to be here for a long time.”

As for the decision to make a change in the CBS anchor job, two names had already gotten attention at CBS News headquarters as potential interim anchors: Harry Smith, a host on “The Early Show,” and Bob Schieffer, the anchor who stepped aside to make room for Ms. Couric.

The executives involved in the discussions about Ms. Couric’s future emphasized that she would not be leaving the job in the short term. But one of her close associates said, “If you ask me, will she fulfill her contract with CBS, that I doubt.”

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