NEW YORK — Amid swirling news reports that Katie Couric may exit the "CBS Evening News" after the November elections, multiple people close to the situation describe a discontented anchor who is conflicted about whether she wants to continue laboring on the third-place newscast.
Couric has yet to indicate that she is ready to leave the broadcast, but her departure is widely considered a foregone conclusion inside CBS News, according to half a dozen staffers bracing for another anchor transition.
Frustrated by the program's performance, Couric discussed the possibility of leaving her post several months ago with CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves and CBS News President Sean McManus, according to people familiar with the conversations.
In their talks, which centered primarily on ways to bolster the newscast and Couric's profile, the anchor and the executives agreed to table discussion about her future until after the November election, said the people, who stressed that no decisions have been made.
Although the "CBS Evening News" still lags far behind its competitors on NBC and ABC, news executives are pleased that the broadcast has regained a hard-edged tone and believe that more viewers may tune in as the 2008 presidential election gains steam.
"I think our product's as good as anyone's," Moonves said as recently as December, speaking at a media conference. He added about Couric: "I still believe in her. Hardest worker in town."
The anchor herself appears upbeat and deeply engaged, say several CBS News staffers who work regularly with her. On Thursday, Couric was in Washington interviewing Army Gen. David H. Petraeus.
"The reality is, it's not the newscast she came to do, and she's disappointed," said a network source close to Couric. "But she's one of those people who says, 'This isn't what I signed up for, but for right now, I'm in it 190%.' "
After the presidential inauguration next January, Couric may consider leaving if the ratings haven't improved, said the source, but added: "She's in the here and now, and focused on right now."
Still, many CBS News staffers believe it's likely that Couric will depart the anchor desk well before her $15-million-a-year contract expires in 2011.
"Is it possible? Most people would say it's possible," said CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts. "People here read the news and also keep track of ratings, and they're mindful that it's the measure in this business."
"They also know that it takes years, not months, to turn around a broadcast," he added, noting how long it took for anchors such as Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings to gain the top spot in the ratings.
Moonves lured Couric from NBC's "Today" show in a much-hyped move in 2006 in the hope of reviving the fortunes of the newscast. But efforts to reshape the "CBS Evening News" around Couric's interviewing strengths and light-hearted manner turned off longtime viewers, executives now admit.
In the last year, the program has reverted back to a more traditional format, much to Couric's frustration, but the audience has continued to dwindle. This season, the program has averaged 6.65 million viewers, down 10% from the same point last season, according to Nielsen Media Research.
In recent months, CBS executives have contemplated other ways to harness her star power and asked whether she would consider taking the helm of "The Early Show," the network's low-rated morning program, according to people close to the situation. Couric declined the offer.
If Couric left the anchor chair, it remains to be seen whether she would stay at CBS as a correspondent for "60 Minutes" or look elsewhere. Her name has been floated as a replacement for Larry King on CNN, but the cable network is not talking to her about the post, according to a knowledgeable source.
On Thursday, speculation about Couric consumed the news division after the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post reported she may leave the anchor chair at the end of the year.
"That's the kind of stuff that's been kicking around here, so it seems logical to people," one CBS staffer said. "The depressing part is it feels like we've fallen into a hard news rhythm, and the show was starting to hit its stride. These reports coming out are kind of a punch in the gut."