Katie Couric has signed a multi-year deal with ABC television to host and… (Jason Reed / Reuters )
Katie Couric is moving back to her comfort zone: daytime TV.
The popular news personality and the Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC television network on Monday announced a comprehensive deal that includes a high-profile role for Couric beginning this summer within the ABC News division, and starting in September 2012, the launch of a syndicated daytime talk show.
Couric will produce and own the talk show along with her onetime "Today" show producer, former NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. The pair spent more than a decade together building NBC's morning program into a ratings and profit juggernaut, and they now will team up to tackle the midafternoon block and attempt to fill the void left by the departure of Oprah Winfrey.
Couric, in an interview, said she expects her new program to be topical and blend elements of the "Today" show and Winfrey's program while also incorporating interactive features in a bid to appeal to the social media crowd. (Couric has become a frequent Twitter user.)
"People are interested in intelligent conversation and perspective, something that puts the tsunami of information that crosses over us each day into some type of context," Couric said. "The show will have smart conversation about a lot of different things."
The move is significant because it shows how networks, in this case ABC, are willing to open their wallets to land a recognizable personality in an era of media fragmentation and smaller budgets. The abundance of TV channels, combined with the immediacy of the Internet and the allure of social networks and video games, has made it more difficult for networks to attract large audiences for their daytime programming or make the kind of money in daytime that they did in the past.
ABC is betting that Couric has enough star power to appeal to viewers young and old and revitalize the daytime landscape after ABC next season retires its long-running soap operas "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." If Couric's show — planned for 3 p.m. weekdays — performs well, it could help funnel viewers into the late afternoon newscasts that ABC stations have long depended on for a portion of their profits.
Monday's announcement capped weeks of media interest over where Couric would land after she finished her five-year assignment as anchor of the "CBS Evening News," a venture that Couric now concedes did not play to her strengths.
"Twenty-two minutes is a very short time, and the evening news is designed to reach people who want a snapshot of the world's news of the day," Couric said. "It's harder to roll up your sleeves and really delve into an issue. I did a lot of interviews but they were cut down to 21/2 to 3 minutes, and that's frustrating."
ABC also believes that Couric is a skilled interviewer who will immediately add depth to the ABC News bench, insiders said, and deliver the type of prime-time interview specials that have long been the hallmark of Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. The octogenarian Walters now provides only a couple of specials a year, and Sawyer is busy anchoring "ABC World News Tonight."
Couric, 54, started her television news career in 1979 as a desk assistant at ABC News. Negotiating a dual role at ABC gives Couric an additional cushion should her talk show sputter. Several prominent personalities, including another "Today" show alum, Jane Pauley, have not been able to make the switch from news anchor to syndicated talk-show host.
"She's covering all of the bases," said Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. "She started early in the morning, then in the evening and now she's headed to the afternoon. But it's not going to be easy for her. This is her second time out in a different format, and fewer people are watching television. Her chances might be even less than what she experienced at the 'CBS Evening News.'"
Couric's team had expected a spirited bidding war for Couric's show in the wake of Winfrey's exit from daytime TV. But in the end, ABC was the only network that made an offer that fulfilled what Couric was looking for — the opportunity to own her own afternoon talk show and a position within a respected broadcast news operation.
"I've been in the news business since I graduated from college — yes, that was 32 years ago," Couric said. "I wanted to make sure that I continue to be connected with a news division that is doing good work. Covering the news is in my blood."
Her return to daytime comes as several popular personalities are leaving, including Regis Philbin and Meredith Vieira, and soap operas are losing steam.
ABC recently ordered two new lifestyle programs for next season to replace the soaps it is canceling, setting up a ratings competition between those series — "The Chew" and "The Revolution" — and "General Hospital," which airs at 3 p.m. in many TV markets. Couric's show means that by the fall of 2012, ABC will have space for only two of those three.
Couric said she began conversations last summer with Zucker, then chief executive of NBCUniversal, who was forced out when Comcast Corp. took control of the media giant earlier this year. Zucker, who ran "Today" for nearly a decade, turned the morning program into NBC's most profitable franchise.
"Jeff is a great producer who always has his finger on the pulse of what people are talking about," Couric said. "When he said he was interested in doing this, it made me even more excited and gave me a greater comfort level than I would have had going with a producer whom I might not know."
Couric said she was also happy that she can start at ABC more than a year before her talk show launches.
"I didn't want to disappear for a year, and have people say, 'Who was that?'" Couric said. "I'm just excited that [this deal is] done and I don't have to be coy anymore."