Katie Couric's time is 'Now' TELEVISION PREVIEW

August 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Could Katie Couric be leaving "Today"?

A week ago, the question might have seemed totally off the wall.

But, earlier this week Couric was on the telephone promoting "Now With Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric," a weekly, prime-time newsmagazine that premieres at 9 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

"Everyone around the 'Today' show asks me, "Oh, you're not going to leave the 'Today' show are you?' " Couric says.

"And, really, I just have to see how it goes. . . . After all, this is going to be live every Wednesday night, and I don't want to be a basket case on Thursday morning when I do the 'Today' show.

"Honestly, I love the 'Today' show. And I hope they don't want me to leave. And I certainly don't want to leave. And I take a lot of pride in that program, and yadda, yadda, yadda.

"But, if I'm a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in six months, I'll have to address that. Or, maybe, someone will have ** to address me or put me in a straitjacket or something. . . . I'll just have to see how it goes."

Everything in TV news -- money, talent, promotion -- these days is going in the direction of the prime-time newsmagazines. "Now" will bring the number of such network shows to nine. Last week, six of them were among prime time's top 10 shows, according to the A.C. Nielsen rating service.

Jeff Zucker, the producer of "Now," explains the boom by saying "Newsmagazines are the dramas of the '90s. . . . A lot of our stories are unfolding dramas. . . . What's the old saying: Truth is stranger than fiction?"

L But the truth is that the boom is a dollars-and-cents story.

One of those top-10, Nielsen winners last week was NBC's "Dateline," the newsmagazine that rigged the test crash of a GM pickup truck last year and was supposed to have lost its credibility. "Dateline" is on track to rack up $45 million in profits for NBC this year.

That kind of money being made by news divisions, which for years have been loss centers, is the reason prime-time %o newsmagazines are where it's at on Network Row and why Couric knows "Today" comes in second to "Now" if the newsmagazine clicks with viewers.

One of the ways NBC hopes to make it click is by showcasing its stars, Couric and Brokaw. Even though "Now" has six full-time reporters, including Fred Francis, Couric and Brokaw are expected to do all the reporting and interviewing in the first two shows. The co-anchors will give live openings and closings for the show and introduce the reports, but the reports and interviews will be on tape.

Tonight's planned line-up, which could be changed by breaking news, consists of Couric interviewing the DeBoer family of the Baby Jessica story and profiling Bette Midler, while Tom Brokaw interviews separatist Randy Weaver about the Idaho shootout with federal authorities that resulted in the death of his wife and a child. Next week, Couric says, she'll profile Colin Powell.

In trying to explain the kinds of stories she'll be doing for "Now," Couric says, "I'm kind of a generalist,really, so there are a lot of pieces that interest me.

"I like doing profiles. . . . I'm fascinated by Colin Powell's military career. . . . I like doing stories that people are going to be talking about around the water cooler the next day that maybe involve ethical interviews. I loved talking to Bette Midler.

"One thing I probably won't be able to devote myself to is sort of the classic, investigative piece that requires an incredible amount of diligence and detail work on the part of the reporter. I don't think my schizophrenic life will allow me to do that."

Couric says that so far the schizophrenia isn't too bad. She's limiting herself to one interview a week, and Zucker has arranged for most of her interviews to be on the East Coast. On the one weekday that she goes from being the "Today" show anchorwoman to "Now" interviewer, Couric says she still manages to get home by 10 or 10:30 p.m.

Starting this week, though, she'll also be under the hot lights of live TV in Rockefeller Center until 10 each Wednesday night.

Couric says she knows there's a risk of burnout or, at least, a serious drop in the on-air perkiness factor.

"I'm not bionic, and I worry, frankly, about burning out and doing too much," Couric says.

"But, so far, everybody around me has been extremely accommodating in terms of scheduling.

"At some point in time, if it gets to be too much for me, I have to say, 'I can't do quite this much.' "

"And that could be frustrating, because I don't really want to be part of a show that I'm merely fronting, you know, that I'm introducing other people's segments. What's the point of that?

"But, so far, except for the fact that my husband was furious when I was an hour-and-a-half late for his first law firm dinner, things have worked out pretty well. . . . Like I said, I'll just have to see how it goes."

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