WASHINGTON – After confirming for “Today” show viewers Wednesday what she called “the worst-kept secret in America,” Katie Couric will join the “CBS Evening News” in September with plans to make significant changes, and do some experimenting, in her new role as anchor and managing editor.
Couric, who was torn about leaving NBC, was convinced by conversations with top CBS executives that she could do more than merely tinker with the evening news format, which has remained fairly stable for half a century, said sources at both networks and people familiar with her thinking.
Conversations began in January, and by the time serious contract negotiations got under way two weeks ago, it did not take long to hammer out a five-year, $75 million deal that roughly matches her current salary.
Couric ultimately realized that she would regret passing up the opportunity to become the first solo female anchor of a network evening newscast, the sources said, and some NBC executives concluded as early as last fall that she would find the temptation irresistible.
Couric rejects the notion that her primary role is as a news reader, said these sources, who declined to be quoted by name about private negotiations and strategy sessions, and she has explored the idea of doing more live interviews, traveling to hot spots and running more stories that are twice as long as the usual two-minute pieces.
CBS News President Sean McManus told his staff that Couric would be doing a hard-news broadcast and that it would not turn into “Entertainment Tonight.” He also addressed the skeptics on the staff, saying they should not prejudge Couric until she succeeds Bob Schieffer in September. And McManus said he would evaluate Couric’s newscast by its journalism, not by checking the ratings – the program has long languished in third place – after a few months.
Couric told NBC viewers that “it was a really difficult decision for a lot of reasons,” in part because of “the connection I feel with you. … It may sound kind of corny,” she said, but “we’ve become friends through the years. …
“Sometimes I think change is a good thing. Although it may be terrifying to get out of your comfort zone, it’s also exciting to start a new chapter in your life.” She said she had listened “to my heart and my gut.”
Jeff Zucker, NBC’s chief executive and a longtime Couric friend who was her original producer at “Today,” said an evening news anchor job “was clearly something we couldn’t offer her here, and both sides understood that. It was really a decision about her life. It had nothing to do with NBC or ‘Today.’ I didn’t have the position she wanted.” Brian Williams took over the top-rated “NBC Nightly News” 16 months ago.
Although Zucker wouldn’t comment, NBC has edged closer to an agreement with Meredith Vieira, of “The View” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” to co-host the show with Matt Lauer, and a deal could be finalized within days, said sources familiar with the talks.
Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes” and a former producer of the CBS newscast, said Couric will do a half-dozen pieces a year for “60 Minutes,” which was key to the deal because she had always dreamed of being on the program. CBS chief executive Les Moonves and longtime producer Don Hewitt had tried in the past to lure her to the newsmagazine. “What makes her perfect for us is that she does such good interviews,” Fager said.
Not everyone at CBS is celebrating Couric’s pending arrival. Andy Rooney, the curmudgeonly “60 Minutes” commentator, said on the Don Imus radio show: “I’m not enthusiastic about it. I think everybody likes Katie Couric. I mean, how could you not like Katie Couric? But I don’t know anybody at CBS News who is pleased that she’s coming here.”
Others at CBS News are more welcoming – Walter Cronkite praised Couric’s “great talents” in a CNN interview Wednesday night – but there is a significant faction that prizes the recent changes and ratings growth under Schieffer and wishes he could have continued. He brought the newscast within 150,000 viewers of ABC one week last month, while still trailing “NBC Nightly News” by more than 1 million.