March 1, 2024

Couric’s Rocky Path to a Likely Parting With CBS

Regular appearances on “60 Minutes” were written into her $15 million-a-year contract with CBS, but once she arrived at the network, she found a chilly reception from some of the staff members at the venerable program. Some of Ms. Couric’s associates said that the chilliness seemed to stem from the top, the show’s executive producer, Jeff Fager. That view was disputed by people close to Mr. Fager, who said that Ms. Couric has praised his stewardship of her “60 Minutes” pieces.

Still, her appearances on the show have been fewer than she hoped for — averaging not even five a year. Even after the show won an Emmy for her interview with the airline pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, Ms. Couric’s visibility on the program never increased.

“They never let her learn the secret handshake there,” said one former NBC colleague.

In February, when Mr. Fager was named chairman of CBS News, his tepid response to the hugely public question of whether she might continue as anchor (Mr. Fager said he hadn’t thought about it yet) sent an additional signal to Ms. Couric and her representatives: it was time to move on.

Ms. Couric and CBS are now negotiating how and when to end her five-year run as anchor, one marked by early criticism, later journalistic successes and disappointing ratings over all.

Ms. Couric is pursuing the idea of her own syndicated talk show, possibly with her former “Today” show co-host, Matt Lauer.

Any such move would be intensely complicated. Mr. Lauer’s contract extends to the end of 2012, while the new show would be expected to start in September. And NBC can be counted on to make perhaps the biggest offer in television news history to keep him at “Today.”

But some people close to the participants conceded the notion had been “thrown around” between the former hosts — and is under serious consideration.

The linchpin in any new show pairing Ms. Couric and Mr. Lauer is Jeff Zucker, who before he was NBC’s chief executive put the two hosts together as executive producer of “Today.” Mr. Zucker had already been expected to be the main creative force behind a talk show with Ms. Couric.

“I think the three of them think it would be awesome to get together again,” one person close to the negotiations said. “It still seems more likely NBC will keep Matt. But it’s not out of the question.”

Even if a reunion with Mr. Lauer does not happen, Ms. Couric is all but certain to commit to the syndicated talk show and leave CBS News.

Almost none of the participants in the discussions about Ms. Couric’s future were willing to be interviewed about her tenure at the anchor desk while talks were continuing. But interviews with producers, network executives and friends of Ms. Couric (most of whom would not speak for the record because they did not want to alienate either the network or Ms. Couric) show that her celebrated hiring was part of a much larger experiment to lift the newscast out of the ratings basement in which it had languished for more than a decade.

For years, network news managers have tried to poach viewers from competitors by adding incremental features. Looking at the steady decline in the evening news audience — down more than 50 percent in the last 30 years — CBS believed its best, maybe only, hope was to throw out the traditional format and attract new viewers with a more interactive and accessible half-hour built around Ms. Couric.

“What we tried to do was change the game,” said Rome Hartman, the first executive producer on Ms. Couric’s newscast. “We tried to grow the whole pie.”

In an interview in the current issue of The New York Times Magazine, Ms. Couric acknowledged being “overly ambitious” and said that in retrospect she would have “given people what they were used to, a traditional newscast” before experimenting with new concepts.

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