Couric leaving NBC for CBS, sources say

April 04, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

In a move expected to shape the evening and morning network news wars for years to come, Katie Couric will announce this week that she will leave NBC's Today show on May 31, paving the way for her to join CBS as the first female solo anchor of an evening newscast, sources at both networks said.

Couric, who earns $15 million a year under the NBC contract that expires at the end of May, will also serve as a featured correspondent on 60 Minutes under the terms of her new deal. Her salary at CBS, which is expected to top $17 million a year, will largely be underwritten by 60 Minutes, one of the highest-earning programs in prime-time history.

"Seventeen million or so might sound like a lot of money to be paying an anchor of the network news," a CBS source said yesterday on condition of anonymity, stressing that details of the contract had yet to be finalized. "But it's nothing in prime-time dollars. This is a win-win situation - at least in terms of the dollars and cents for CBS - and Katie Couric makes history in the bargain as the first female solo anchor."

Three women have served as co-anchors of evening newscasts. Barbara Walters was the first in 1976 when she joined Harry Reasoner at the anchor desk of what was then called The ABC Evening News. Connie Chung co-anchored the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather in 1993. In January, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff were named co-anchors of ABC World News Tonight, replacing Peter Jennings who died of lung cancer in August.

The scenario sketched out by sources familiar with the negotiations has the 49-year-old Couric announcing this week her departure from Today. She has been with the morning broadcast for 15 years, and it has been No. 1 in the ratings for the past decade.

Earning more than $225 million a year, Today is the most profitable news series at NBC. It now beats ABC's Good Morning America by more than 1 million viewers a day.

But with Couric gone, that could change quickly. Indicative of the chain reactions that Couric's departure will trigger, sources said NBC will offer Couric's Today job to Meredith Vieira, co-host of The View on ABC.

Technically, Couric was not allowed to negotiate until May 10 under the terms of her contract. But NBC - in hopes of bringing clarity to next year's lineup before advertisers convene in mid-May to spend millions of "up front" advertising dollars - agreed to let her talk with CBS in recent days. Sources at both networks said the first stage of Couric's departure would be handled exclusively by her and NBC - with CBS staying out of the way until it can officially welcome her to network news headquarters on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

Insiders at CBS said one of the network's major concerns now that the deal with Couric appears to be done is making sure that Bob Schieffer, who took over as anchor of the CBS Evening News a year ago after Rather was forced to step down, is happy with the new arrangement.

Last month, Schieffer told The Sun that he was a "friend and a fan" of Couric's and that he hoped she would decide to join the network. Schieffer, who is 69 and battled bladder cancer three years ago, said he had no intention of becoming permanent anchor of the broadcast.

Still, Schieffer's contributions to CBS News during the past year have been monumental. He took the point for a network news division devastated by a 60 Minutes report in September 2004 that came to be known as "Memogate," and led it back to respectability.

The 60 Minutes report alleged that President Bush had received preferential treatment while in the National Guard. But it was quickly discovered that the story was based on documents that CBS could not verify. Three producers and executives were ultimately fired. Rather, who served as correspondent on the report and used his Evening News broadcasts to defend it, was forced to resign in March 2005 after 24 years as anchor.

CBS began publicly courting Couric last fall when Sean McManus was named president of CBS News, and promptly announced that he intended to rebuild the division in large part through the acquisition of big-name talent. Couric was at the top of his list.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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