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CBS Is Betting on `Today' Anchor's Pull With Viewers

Hopes are on Katie Couric to lift the evening news show's ratings and the division's image.

April 06, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Katie Couric's announcement Wednesday that she is leaving NBC's "Today" to become the next face of CBS News ushers in a new era for her next employer, which is counting on the celebrity broadcaster not only to expand the audience of its third-place evening newscast but also to restore the standing of the entire news division.

After months of conjecture about what she dubbed "the worst-kept secret in America," Couric made it official on her 15th anniversary as co-anchor of the top-rated morning program, telling "Today" viewers that she had decided to take CBS' offer "after listening to my heart and my gut, two things that have served me pretty well in the past."

She committed to a five-year deal at the network, where beginning this fall she will take over as anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" -- the first woman to helm a network evening newscast alone. Couric will also contribute pieces to the top-rated Sunday newsmagazine "60 Minutes" and anchor prime-time specials. CBS is paying her an annual salary of about $15 million, comparable to what she is currently making, according to several sources familiar with the negotiations.

The 49-year-old Couric is expected to be replaced on "Today" by Meredith Vieira, co-host of ABC's daytime talk show "The View," who Wednesday night was in final negotiations with NBC, sources said.

For CBS -- which helped pioneer the golden era of television news but more recently had to contend with searing criticism after airing a flawed story in 2004 about President Bush's military service -- securing Couric was worth the investment, not only because of her potential appeal to younger viewers but also for the cachet of her presence at the network, officials said.

"Broadcasters with the credibility, skills and popularity of Katie Couric are few and far between," CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and news division President Sean McManus wrote in an e-mail to employees. They called her arrival at the network "as significant an event, in its own way, as the return of the NFL to CBS or the arrival of 'CSI' and 'Survivor' to our prime-time schedule."

Couric's hiring caps a period of rebuilding at CBS News, which was deeply demoralized after it had to apologize for relying on unsubstantiated documents for the story about Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

The mood has improved internally in recent months after the arrival of McManus, the energetic head of the network's sports division. Meanwhile, the evening newscast -- under the stewardship of veteran Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer -- has experienced modest ratings growth this season to date over last season, even as NBC and ABC lost viewers.

CBS executives believe that Couric's high profile gives the network a major league player to help command attention in a cluttered media environment. During a noon staff meeting at the West 57th Street newsroom in New York, McManus stressed that CBS' successful pursuit of Couric underscored the network's desire to regain its once-top-ranked status.

But the move is not without risk for the network and Couric.

Her hiring is a costly proposition for CBS, especially considering that the half-hour evening newscasts generate substantially less ad revenue for the networks than the morning programs. "CBS Evening News" brought in $171 million last year, while "Today" earned more than half a billion dollars, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

For her part, in leaving behind "Today," where she was the longest-serving and arguably most successful co-anchor in the program's history, Couric is decamping to a new arena where she will be under sharp public scrutiny. She'll be in direct competition with current NBC colleague Brian Williams, whose top-rated nightly broadcast beat CBS by more than 1 million viewers a night in the most recent weekly ratings report, according to Nielsen Media Research. Second-place "World News Tonight" on ABC has less of a lead over CBS; last week, the margin between the broadcasts was 370,000 viewers.

"Sometimes I think change is a good thing," Couric told "Today" viewers Wednesday. "Although it may be terrifying to get out of your comfort zone, it's also very exciting to start a new chapter in your life."

Although Couric said it would be difficult to leave "Today" and her colleagues there, people familiar with her thinking said she was convinced that CBS officials shared her desire to reinvigorate the evening news format. She had long been interested in working at "60 Minutes" as well, and eventually concluded that the opportunity CBS was offering was one she couldn't pass up.

"It was a very difficult, hard, searching decision for her, but she really feels CBS is an exciting place for her to work," said Wendy Walker, a longtime Couric friend who works as a senior executive producer at CNN. "It's a very challenging job and she loves a challenge."

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