This past spring, CBS News president Sean McManus and executive vice-president Paul Friedman discussed whether to try to bring an end to what may be the last great experiment in network news: Katie Couric, anchorwoman. Though her reported $15 million annual contract is not up until next June, one idea that was floated was for CBS to buy out the remainder of Couric's contract this September and put in someone new this fall, according to people familiar with the conversation. Executives were perhaps also concerned about the bad publicity that might result from a long contract negotiation with Couric, especially if she ended up leaving. McManus didn't want to make an early move, and CBS CEO Leslie Moonves was also against moving so quickly. “Leslie is incredibly supportive,” one person familiar with Moonves's thinking explained. “Moonves and Katie have an excellent relationship.”
Couric, too, is considering her options, according to sources familiar with her thinking. While her name circulated as a possible successor to Larry King at CNN, Couric is open to a range of television ideas at various networks, including remaining at CBS. A spokesperson for CBS News declined to comment on internal conversations. Couric's spokesperson, Matthew Hiltzik, told me that “Katie is enjoying her job and is focused on her work. And we'll leave the speculation to everyone else.”
Couric may even wind up back at NBC. According to people with knowledge of the matter, NBC CEO Jeff Zucker has communicated to Couric's agent, Alan Berger at CAA, that NBC would welcome Couric's return when she is available. One issue for Couric to weigh in a possible deal with NBC would be Zucker's fate after the Comcast merger closes, and whether it would be smarter to wait and do a deal with Comcast executives.
And Couric herself sees the media writing on the wall. Her next act in TV will likely be part of a larger media brand she hopes to build around content she creates. Television will be an important platform, but Couric over the past year has aggressively sought to establish herself online, through a weekly web interview show and frequent Twitter updates. One thought is that she would create her own production company.
No decisions about Couric's future have been reached, and right now CBS seems content to see how things play out. But for Moonves and CBS, the conversations about Couric's future at the Evening News raise larger questions about the role of broadcast news in this media environment and whether CBS remains in the broadcast news business for the long haul. This spring, Moonves directed CBS executives to consider a news partnership with CNN, rekindling long-running talks between CBS and CNN about a deal to share news-gathering resources. While Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent and lawyers for Turner and CBS discussed how the news partnership would work, neither side could resolve issues of editorial control and the CBS union contracts that have derailed earlier negotiations. Since then, the talks have stalled, though that's not to say a deal, given the right climate, couldn't be hammered out eventually.
Whatever the case, the discussions over Couric's future represent a growing awareness that the Couric experiment, however successful journalistically, was a failure in terms of reinvigorating the TV news business. A leading internal candidate to replace Couric is 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley, a highly respected correspondent but one with a fairly traditional skill set, suggesting that Moonves has given up on reinventing the news.