Anchors donning many hats

Cooper, Couric and Pelley among those pulling double duty

Unemployment remains high, while those fortunate enough to be working are being stretched to their absolute limits, multi-tasking as never before.

And that’s just some of the media’s highest-paid, most-visible talent.

Anchoring an evening newscast or hosting a syndicated program, one would think, might be enough of a workload. Anderson Cooper, however, will continue holding down two hours weeknights on CNN as well as a daytime talkshow, “Anderson,” launching this fall through sister Warner Bros.’ syndication arm.

Katie Couric’s multifaceted Disney deal calls for a similar donning of different hats, returning to her daytime roots with a talkshow while contributing to ABC News. Couric’s successor at CBS, Scott Pelley, plans to maintain a frenetic pace with a steady stream of reporting for “60 Minutes” in addition to helming “The CBS Evening News,” just as NBC counterpart Brian Williams is prepping a new primetime program.

Beyond Couric’s “primary mission” in syndication, ABC News prez Ben Sherwood told staffers in a memo, “Katie will contribute across all of our broadcasts and online, joining our powerhouse lineup of anchors and correspondents as the ultimate utility player.”

Utility player? Think of her as the world’s highest-paid pinch hitter who doesn’t play baseball.

More than anyone, opinion hosts have established this precedent, with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck having held forth for hours on both TV and radio. Even without FNC, Beck has become a cottage industry, including the Web, books and personal appearances.

Crossing political lines, Keith Olbermann won’t be content to simply put Current TV on the map by hosting a primetime program starting June 20. He’s also doubling as its chief news officer — charged with rebuilding the little-seen channel, hour by hour. “It’s virgin forest,” he told Rolling Stone, “and I own it.”

Why is this happening? Not because these marquee players need the money or extra work, obviously, although given the insecurity that frequently plagues such personalities, that can’t entirely be ruled out. In a business where avaricious understudies are always eyed with suspicion — think “All About Eve” — there’s scant upside in letting a possible replacement shine.

The more pertinent issue, though, has to do with audience fragmentation, which not only makes such spinoffs potentially viable but seemingly dictates what sounds like a variation on the lyrics to “New York, New York” — namely, if you want to make it somewhere, it’s wise to be everywhere.

Having Cooper or Couric available in multiple places, based on this theory, won’t dilute their primary platforms but will rather promote and buttress them. There’s also an assumption that these communicators are deft enough to tailor their presentation to different audiences, recognizing some variance between the profiles for news and daytime chat.

For the companies, this can easily become a double-edged sword. Yes, they’re wringing more mileage (and thus potentially additional profits) out of their top-tier talent, but expanding these individual footprints so broadly also makes these key players more difficult to manage (see Beck and Olbermann) and control.

In addition, heaping more work on a handful of marquee names could mitigate the ability to develop and showcase new talent. While there’s hardly a shortage of space or time in the digital universe, the open stages tend to be more of the off-Broadway variety when workhorses like Pelley, Williams and Cooper juggle the work of two or three people.

The one aspect no longer deemed a source of concern, meanwhile, is whether an anchor might be diminished or devalued by appearing in disparate venues.

Cooper, who has spoken of connecting with the daytime audience “in an emotional way,” just hired a veteran of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” Lisa Morin, as an exec producer. Couric wants to expose her lighter side in syndication but still have a hand in credibly covering news. And Williams is a favorite guest not only on the latenight talk/comedy circuit, but an occasional bit player on “30 Rock.”

One thing is clear: Media multi-tasking isn’t just for those struggling to make ends meet. As for those upstarts who might yearn for greater exposure, with “utility players” like these, better get used to sitting on the bench.

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