News biz will get a wake-up call

Couric makes historic move to CBS

Katie Couric’s move to CBS, after a very public courtship by the net’s Leslie Moonves, will shake up two long-entrenched areas of the network news business: the traditional evening newscast and the morning race.

Today marks Couric’s 15th anniversary on “Today,” and the carefully timed, long-awaited announcement sets off a domino effect in the morning and network news, two dayparts CBS Corp. topper Moonves has been unable to influence, despite the network’s primetime success.

By robbing NBC’s “Today” of its biggest star, CBS puts the show’s dominance in peril; the move also has caused NBC, which usually promotes from within, to take the unusual step of looking outside for talent.

NBC is huddling with Meredith Vieira, host of ABC’s “The View” and the syndicated “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” for a deal worth $10 million a year to become Matt Lauer’s new partner on “Today.”

Insiders said Couric’s CBS deal will be on a par with her current Peacock pact, giving her a salary of roughly $15 million a year over four to five years.

CBS’ dogged courtship of Couric mirrors the star-driven strategy that Moonves used to try to jumpstart the Eye’s primetime lineup when he took over more than a decade ago.

The move is historic — no broadcast network has ever had a solo female news anchor — and a boon for CBS, which gets someone with a built-in following of desirable demos.

Sources at CBS said they expected Couric’s debut to come at the start of the fall season. It’s possible she won’t immediately replace current “Evening News” anchor Bob Schieffer, instead being tapped as his successor. That would give her a chance to integrate into the CBS News culture and avoid the hazards of quickly replacing an anchor who seems to be working out. It’s also assumed she’d get a spot on “60 Minutes.”

“When Les Moonves goes after big-salary players, it’s a signal he means big business and wants to be No. 1,” Schieffer said.

The move also fires a major salvo against Moonves’ longtime rival, Jeff Zucker, who has been joined at the hip with Couric for years.

While Couric has undeniable hard-news credentials — she’s interviewed presidents and world leaders in addition to George Clooney and the Runaway Bride — her appointment is a high-stakes experiment for CBS, one that could do damage to the competition in a way that CBS hasn’t been able to in the past.

When Couric takes the “Evening News” anchor chair, short-term interest and a hefty dose of promotion is likely to further boost the newscast, which has gained 200,000 viewers since the beginning of the season with Schieffer at the helm.

While it’s unlikely that CBS’ “Evening News” could significantly close the 1.2 million viewer gap with NBC’s “Nightly News With Brian Williams,” it could threaten ABC’s “World News Tonight,” which has undergone a series of setbacks beginning with the death of Peter Jennings.

“World News” holds a slim 400,000-viewer lead and will lose Elizabeth Vargas to maternity leave at the end of the summer. ABC News’ other co-anchor, Bob Woodruff, is recovering from a roadside bomb attack Iraq, but it’s unlikely he will return to work before the end of the year, and the network has held talks with “Good Morning America” co-anchor Charlie Gibson to fill in on a semi-permanent basis.

With the expected departure of Vieira from two of Disney’s most successful syndicated series and the likely move of Gibson from the morning to the evening, ABC is coming out of this shakeup looking the most stretched for talent.

All of this is good news for CBS’ perennial third-place morning franchise, “The Early Show,” which — like the “Evening News” — will look to take advantage of any viewer shopping that occurs.

“We are competing against two superpowers,” said “Early Show” executive producer Michael Bass. “Bottom line is any disruption at the other shows is good for us.”

For Moonves, luring Couric away from NBC is a manifestation of his belief in star power, applying his entertainment background to the news realm. When he took over CBS Entertainment, his first efforts involved wooing Bill Cosby and Ted Danson to headline CBS sitcoms.

Neither “Cosby” nor “Becker” proved a game-changer, but Moonves methodically rebuilt the downtrodden network while suffering under NBC’s dominance and is now about to finish his second year in first place in total viewers.

It’s also a sign of how deep the Moonves-Zucker rivalry goes. The day Zucker arrived in L.A. to take over NBC Entertainment, Moonves moved “Survivor” to Thursday night in a bid to dismantle NBC’s dominance on that critical night.

Yet for all Moonves’ success in primetime, he has been unable to chip away at NBC’s commanding lead in the morning, in news and in latenight programming.

By stealing Couric, Moonves sees an opportunity to finally create an opening for CBS — while adding to Zucker’s headaches as he looks to revive NBC’s fourth-place primetime lineup.

The deal also splits Zucker and Couric, who have enjoyed an unusually close relationship in terms of an executive producer and star, their careers rising along parallel paths. He was a 26-year-old producer of “Today” who shepherded the program to No. 1 with her in the anchor chair, eventually leading to his move to NBC Entertainment and now overseeing the TV group.

A cancer survivor, Zucker’s bond with Couric was heightened by the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, from colon cancer at age 41.

But like Couric, Zucker left “Today” as his career advanced, and he has said he would understand if Couric made the same decision. The difference is Zucker at least stayed with the network, while Couric is going to the competition.

Couric leaves “Today” in a strong competitive position — almost as strong as Williams’ hold on the network evening news crown. After the ratings gap narrowed last spring, “Today” brought in a new executive producer, Jim Bell, and vice president Phil Griffin. The show once again looks unassailable, with more than a million-viewer lead over second-place “GMA.”

Any significant staff change carries some risk, but NBC sources said the net is going to use the opportunity to strengthen the show — giving Matt Lauer, “Today’s” co-anchor since 1997, the opportunity to expand his prominence within the broadcast. If the net can strike a deal with Vieira, she will become Lauer’s partner, though Ann Curry, Campbell Brown or Natalie Morales could step into that role if talks fall through.

“I think we have a fantastic bench,” said “Today” executive producer Jim Bell. “They are players that get a lot of playing time.”

As consolation regarding Couric’s exit, NBC can remember that CBS wooed Bryant Gumbel, who had just retired from “Today,” to become host of what turned out to be a short-lived primetime newsmag, “Public Eye.” They soon placed him on “The Early Show,” but that too failed to derail the NBC morning show’s gravy train.

(Brian Lowry and Josef Adalian in Hollywood contributed to this report.)