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Couric Is Set to Join CBS News as Anchor

April 05, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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.

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