By The Associated Press
When offered the chance to make history, Katie Couric took it.
The money was easy.
Being everything CBS News needed was anything but.
The expectations heaped upon Couric as the first solo female anchor of a U.S. broadcast network newscast were exceeded only by the hype. Both were amplified and undone by the Hollywood superstar-size paycheck CBS had given her, and almost none of it seemed rooted in reality.
Looking back, the only thing “The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” truly reinvented was the launch playbook going forward: Never again will the debut of any newscast or newscaster be promoted like the latest cinematic gem from Jennifer Aniston, a PR campaign that can fuel a strong opening but almost ensures a fast fade.
It is presumed historic Couric, whose five-year contract to front “The CBS Evening News” expires in June, will leave the vaunted anchor desk of Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer.
Scott Pelley, from “60 Minutes,” or Harry Smith or someone else certainly could fill the role, if drafted by new CBS News boss Jeff Fager, who doubles as the executive producer of “60 Minutes.”
In the meantime, amid all the talk of Couric’s fate, The New York Times reported she was preparing to leave Tuesday for a long-planned reporting trip to Iraq.
If the CBS anchor job is less than it once was, Couric, 54, is not necessarily the reason. It was Rather who ceded the No. 1 spot in the ratings, and that was in 1989 after 22 years. And it was Rather’s “memogate” scandal that hurt morale in, and greased his exit from, a news division already diminished by years of budget cuts when inherited by Couric.
Although collectively evening news audiences continue to shrink, they remain formidable, especially compared with cable news outlets. Still, it’s hard to imagine a return to the days when Rather, ABC’s Peter Jennings and NBC’s Tom Brokaw each led their respective networks’ news departments over two decades like a media Mount Rushmore.
Whatever transition there is at CBS likely will be occasioned by little fanfare, like Diane Sawyer’s late 2009 replacement of ABC’s Charles Gibson, who fronted “World News” for only 3 ½ years. NBC, led by Brian Williams, continues to be No. 1, but it took Brokaw, his predecessor, 14 years to gain that top spot.
Most informed speculation of late — and it will remain speculation until someone actually announces something on letterhead or at least with their names attached — has Couric leaving “Evening News” to host her own syndicated daytime program in tandem with some other position somewhere. If she were to stay with CBS, for example, she might remain a presence on “60 Minutes.” But there have been talks with others, including ABC, NBC and CNN.
The syndication effort is expected to launch in the fall of 2012, giving a one-year head start to CNN’s Anderson Cooper and everyone else hoping to fill the void left by Oprah Winfrey retiring her daytime juggernaut.
A daytime show would enable Couric to draw on the very strengths that made her so powerful on “Today,” including the ability to shift from serious to soft in the time it takes to turn from one camera to another, and her skills as an interviewer.
These assets were briefly incorporated in her CBS newscasts, but they never really fit. They were discarded with all of CBS boss Leslie Moonves’ rhetoric of remaking the nightly news for a new generation that seems to get its headlines from media that didn’t exist when the network newscasts were in their heyday.
The syndicated effort would also reunite her with Jeff Zucker. Before rising to the top of NBC Universal and exiting when Comcast took control, Zucker helped make “Today” the dominant cash cow it is today as its executive producer.
Zucker and Couric brought out the best in each other, and their success helped set the salary benchmark that scored her a reported $15 million a year at CBS. Neither he nor she has been better than when they worked together, even if both came to feel they had outgrown the program.
Couric’s famous CBS interview of 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was reminiscent of her best “Today” work, showing that behind that warm smile were teeth capable of leaving a mark.
But save for a ratings surge that greeted Couric’s much-promoted debut as successor to Schieffer in September 2006, “The CBS Evening News” has been ceding ground ever since, despite honors such as the Edward R. Murrow Award for best newscast in 2008 and again in 2009.
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Tuesday is the fifth anniversary of Couric’s announcement that she planned to leave the gilded cage of “Today” after a decade and a half as co-host.
The following April, just seven months after her 2006 CBS debut, the Philadelphia Inquirer called her “an expensive, unfixable mistake” and, citing unnamed sources, reported Couric might “leave ‘CBS Evening News,’ probably after the 2008 presidential elections, to assume another role at the network.”
In April 2008, The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that “after two years of record-low ratings” she was “likely to leave the network well before her contract expires in 2011 — possibly soon after the presidential inauguration in” early 2009.
These “Couric is leaving CBS” reports have practically been a rite of spring, like the northern migration of birds, turning the clocks forward and watching your NCAA basketball office-pool entry go bust.
Some April it was bound to be true.