Couric tries to stifle the buzz

But speculation grows about a move to CBS

The buzz about Couric will not go away


During a news conference held by NBC to tout the success of its own morning news program, network executives and Today show co-host Katie Couric yesterday tried to quash rumors about the newswoman's possible defection to CBS. If she switched networks, Couric would become the first woman to anchor the nightly news alone -- and would reportedly earn an estimated $20 million annually.

Their efforts were unsuccessful.

The buzz began last month when Sean McManus, newly named president of CBS News, announced that he aggressively would recruit star talent from other networks. Far from abating, the speculation has cast a spotlight on Couric, whose contract doesn't expire until May, as a veritable economic engine for NBC.

"I know there's been a great deal of speculation in the press, and while I appreciate the interest, kind of, my contract ends in May, and I'm trying to figure what I'm going to do," Couric said at the start of yesterday's telephone news conference.

"I'm fortunate to have a couple of opportunities that I'm thinking long and hard about. But in terms of any imminent announcement, there won't be one. There have a been a lot of things out there that I don't know where people are getting them ... There really is nothing to announce and nothing to report."

The 48-year-old newswoman, whose popularity has held the NBC morning news show in the No. 1 position for 10 years, makes an estimated $16 million annually -- more than anyone in TV news. No one, including Brian Williams -- who was picked last year over Couric to anchor the NBC Nightly News -- can drive network earnings the way that Couric can. Only Oprah Winfrey, who earns $250 million annually, wields greater economic clout -- partially because she owns and produces her show.

Couric's salary might seem excessive until one considers the stakes. For 2004 (the latest full year for which figures are available), Today (NBC) earned $552.4 million in ad revenue, while Good Morning America (ABC) took in $524.7 million, and Early Show (CBS) attracted $242.6 million.

And research consistently shows that viewership is driven predominantly by the personality at the anchor desk. "Look at what Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer did for Good Morning America. The show was not doing anywhere near what ABC wanted it to do [in 1999], and the gap between Good Morning America and the Today show was huge. Then, ABC gets these two guys to come on, and they turned around that show. They re-energized it, and it's been nipping at the heels of Today," said Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat USA, the nation's largest independent media services company.

"Personalities do matter. And, in terms of ad revenue, if the ratings go up, the ad money follows. We go where the eyeballs are."

Besides money, Couric may have reason to consider the CBS offer: When Tom Brokaw retired last year, NBC passed her by when filling the anchor position for the NBC Nightly News.

"In a lot of different corporate settings, people in power will take a chance on a man, but not a woman. So you have to prove yourself 10 times over," said Marguerite Moritz, a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado, who has written extensively on media and gender.

"So, she proved herself time and again on the morning show, but it was no guarantee that they would look at her for the premiere job at NBC News when Tom Brokaw left. Make no mistake about it: The person in that chair is the face of the news division, and now she has a chance to assume that role at CBS."

Couric also has the good fortune to be the first and only major newscaster whose contract is expiring just as McManus and his boss, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves, begin a campaign to buy their last-ranked newscast out of the ratings basement. "In some ways, this reminds of what happened after Michael Jordan said he was thinking about returning to basketball after retiring from the Chicago Bulls," said Douglas Gomery, professor and media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Everybody went crazy trying to figure out what it would mean in terms of attendance and wins and everything else. There seems to be that kind of speculation surrounding the end of her contract and the kind of money that is said to be in play."

The CBS deal likely would call for Couric, a one-time NBC national correspondent, to appear on 60 Minutes, one of the most lucrative properties in the history of network television. The venerable broadcast still earns in excess of $100 million annually. Those earnings would be used to subsidize the cost of bringing Couric on board at the ailing CBS Evening News .

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