Katie Couric’s Bad Bet: Leaving ABC News for Yahoo

A TV heavyweight nests on a wobbly digital perch. What could go wrong?

After stints at CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC, maybe Katie Couric is going to Yahoo because there is simply nowhere else to go.

While reports Friday suggesting Couric is exiting her ABC News deal a year early to move to Yahoo shouldn’t be surprising considering the move has been rumored for months, that doesn’t make her impending arrival seem any less an awkward fit.

Sure, it’s going to make a good headline for Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who may have scored her biggest coup since spending over $1 billion on Tumblr. Yahoo has teetered between media company and technology outfit for so long that the market may take the Couric pickup as the biggest indication in a long while that Mayer is still committed to the former.

But Yahoo has long had this tortured relationship with the establishment media world that dates back to the days when Hollywood vets like Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun prowled its Santa Monica hallways in hopes of bridging the worlds of entertainment and the Internet. It’s much easier said than done, and maybe only Netflix has really done it successfully after all this time.

Couric has always been admirably aggressive about experimenting with online video and social media, so this is no neophyte putting a toe in new waters. But the problem is she is still a fixture of the old media world. Regardless of how willing she is to shed her skin and embrace new ways, the world still mostly sees her in the over-familiar constructs of “anchor” and “talkshow host.”

Couric will no doubt be added to a list of other media luminaries Mayer has lured over to Yahoo like David Pogue and Megan Liberman, but she is of an entirely different stratosphere as a creation of TV, not the print world. And yet that could be what hurts her most. She is such a creature of a different and indelible medium that she simply can’t come alive again in the way that a digital-native personality with a news orientation, like a Philip DeFranco, could be.

Couric has already had plenty of exposure on Yahoo via its partnership with ABC News, and you can only assume that Mayer has the data that showed her site’s audiences are gravitating to her. Yahoo also has a variety of femme-skewing properties that are probably great cross-promotional opportunities.

But Yahoo has not shown any kind of consistent ability to support name-brand talent on its platform. In fact, the only thing that has truly worked is comedic series “Burning Love,” from Paramount’s Insurge Pictures and Red Hour Digital, which didn’t rely on big star power on its way to multiple seasons that graduated to TV via cable channel E! Then there’s the shortform video equivalent of Doritos like “Primetime in No Time” that Yahoo makes work on the cheap. Millions have munched all they want, and Yahoo just keeps making more of them (a third spinoff, “Late Night in No Time,”  quietly launched recently).

Portals like Yahoo and AOL have a marvelous ability to push significant amounts of traffic to virtually any content with placement on their still-prominent homepages. But that is not a strategy for the long term given those homepages are being visited in declining numbers. What’s more, these audiences aren’t the kind of consistently returning visitors that display the kind of engagement metrics advertisers care about.

This is going to be a real test to see if Yahoo can do what they’ve never really done well before: Justify the big bucks that no doubt had to be spent to get Couric with the kind of well-orchestrated promotional assault that will bring eyeballs. The kind of eyeballs that actually come back a second or third time, too.

In fairness to Couric, there may not be a news personality on planet Earth that any digital property can bring in that will truly move the needle in terms of traffic and revenues.

Still, you can’t help but root for Couric to finally figure out how to reinvent herself. It’s downright courageous of her to make a headfirst dive into a very uncertain future, not just at Yahoo but in any part of the digital landscape. Many of her cohorts would probably sooner retire than risk being seen as slumming it.

The upside is that if she can make it work, she’ll be seen as a visionary. It’s hard to see how that could come to pass, but that will make it seem all the more amazing if she pulls it off.

Maybe short of faking a conversion to conservatism to join the gang at Fox News Channel, she’s going to Yahoo because it’s the only move left to make.

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