Couric move to unleash dominoes

Network news chiefs expected to realign their anchors

April 06, 2006|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

No single move in television news has set off as great a chain reaction as Katie Couric's decision to leave NBC's Today show to become the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. The star journalist's departure from NBC, which was widely reported early this week, was confirmed on air yesterday during NBC's morning program by the 49-year-old herself.

"After listening to my heart and my gut -- two things that have served me pretty well in the past -- I've decided I'll be leaving Today at the end of May," she told her 6 million viewers shortly after 7:30 a.m.

With her comments, a sweeping realignment of TV news anchors and hosts that will span shows from NBC's Today and CBS' 60 Minutes, to ABC's The View and World News Tonight began.

"Who's going to replace Couric at Today, and how will that affect the fortunes of morning television -- the richest realm of TV news? Will ABC's Good Morning America be able to make a run if Charles Gibson or Diane Sawyer moves to World News Tonight? ... There are tens of millions of dollars up for grabs because of the decision that Couric finally made official yesterday," said Douglas Gomery, a media economist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"It's like Mary Pickford changing studios in the glory days of Hollywood, and it proves the star system still drives the TV industry today," he said.

In her new job, Couric, who will earn $17 million each year of a five-year contract, becomes the first woman solo anchor of a network. Although she will join CBS in June, she will not take over as anchor until after Labor Day. Couric will replace interim anchor Bob Schieffer, who will return to his former position as chief Washington correspondent -- and possibly act as a commentator on the nightly news.

"We're going to spend the summer trying to figure out how it's all going to work. Katie has to be part of it now so I guess I'm going to see what she wants me to do," said Schieffer yesterday in a telephone call from Fort Worth, Texas. "I really do like her and I know Katie's going to be terrific."

Moments after Couric's comments yesterday, NBC executives sent an e-mail to staff members in which they promised that her replacement would be named "soon." The network is expected to announce this week that ABC's Meredith Vieira will replace Couric as co-anchor of the highest-rated show on morning television.

The 52-year-old Vieira is one of five co-hosts of ABC's daytime show, The View, as well as solo host of the syndicated game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. As of yesterday, Vieira, who was once a correspondent for CBS' 60 Minutes, had not yet accepted NBC's offer of a four-year contract at $10 million annually.

"Meredith Vieira moving into Katie Couric's job on the Today show would be a good move for all concerned," said Paul Levinson, professor of media studies at Fordham University. "The Today show gets a personality with humor, style and news experience; Vieira moves up to one of the choice positions in broadcasting. Her wit and presence will be a good match for Matt Lauer's."

At ABC, News President David Westin has been waiting to hear Couric's decision before making a series of important moves.

ABC's World News Tonight has suffered a steady and steep ratings decline since Peter Jennings' departure last year, a few months before he died. Bob Woodruff, who last December was named co-anchor with Elizabeth Vargas, has not been able to work since January when he was injured in a land mine explosion in Iraq. And Vargas recently announced that she would go on maternity leave in the coming months.

For weeks, Westin has been expected to announce that the hosts of ABC's Good Morning America -- Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer -- would be taking up semi-permanent residence at the nightly anchor desk. But with Couric gone from the morning show wars, ABC's best strategy may be to take aim at NBC's morning program.

Good Morning America trails NBC by only 1 million viewers and overtaking the Today show could mean as much as $25 million more in annual profit for ABC.

No news program makes more money for its network than CBS' 60 Minutes, and Couric's move will lead to changes there as well. Not only will Couric have a prominent role on air, but the network may move to ease out such high-salaried stars as Dan Rather, who has filed only a handful of reports since joining the broadcast in March 2004.

The most delicate maneuvering of all may occur at CBS Evening News where Chairman Les Moonves and news President Sean McManus now must keep their new superstar happy while respecting the contributions of the 69-year-old anchorman whom she succeeds.

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