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Where Yahoo Stars Like Katie Couric Could Fit in Verizon’s Content Universe

Katie Couric Under the Gun
David Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

The $4.8 billion sale of Yahoo leaves lots of strategic questions for Verizon in the coming months regarding how to manage all of the new assets, including its highest-profile media property: Katie Couric.

What will happen to Yahoo’s “global news anchor” when her contract is scheduled to expire in the spring of 2017 could say a lot about where Verizon wants to take its new acquisition’s content holdings.

As outgoing CEO Marissa Mayer prepared her company for auction, the content division was whittled down in early 2016, including a $42 million write-down for licensing a new season of the former NBC comedy “Community,” the closure of video hub Yahoo Screen and the elimination of many of its digital magazines.

But despite the media unit’s rocky ride, Verizon is going to inherit some potent web properties in branded verticals for sports and finance, as well as a roster of brand-name journalists like Couric and tech guru David Pogue. The division is led by former Time Inc. editorial chief Martha Nelson.

Her fate, and that of all Yahoo’s content assets will be decided AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who will bring Yahoo into his portfolio. He reports to Verizon EVP Marni Walden, who oversees emerging businesses for the telco giant. While their plan will involve expanding the combined strength of Yahoo and AOL’s audiences to get greater share of mobile ad revenues, the open question is how the content strategy will shift once the merger is a reality.

In the time AOL has been under the Verizon umbrella, there hasn’t been much change from Huffington Post to new live-streaming vertical Build. Verizon has seemed to put more energy into either launching new properties like mobile video platform go90 and other acquisitions like its new stake in AwesomenessTV.

But go90 has not made much of a splash, including original programming efforts like “The Runner,” an innovative unscripted format that hasn’t generated much buzz.

Only time will tell Whether Verizon’s content efforts to date represent a strategic conservatism toward a mobile landscape still taking shape or tentative first steps toward a more ambitious vision that the scale of Yahoo brings will help further. If AOL is any indication, Verizon doesn’t feel compelled to move too quickly or dramatically.

With the sale scheduled to close in the first quarter of 2017, Couric could be one of the biggest decisions Armstrong and Walden face.

She has been a controversial figure at the company ever since an even more controversial figure, Mayer, lured her to Yahoo in 2013 as the centerpiece of a renewed investment in premium content intended to attract advertisers and audience.

She reportedly makes $10 million per year including stock options as part of a deal that also gives her flexibility to pursue side projects, which she has done aggressively in recent years including producing documentaries and TV shows. Couric is also starting her own podcast this week with Earwolf, a company that specializes in that audio format.

A rep for Couric declined comment.

While those extensions of the Couric brand bring in new revenue and allow her to experiment in new areas, they have also delivered backlash. Two documentaries she produced, “Fed Up” and “Under the Gun,” were criticized for misleading editing for which she had to apologize. Some critics even called on Yahoo to fire her even though the company had nothing to do with those outside projects, but Mayer stood her ground.

Most at Yahoo, according to insiders, don’t share Mayer’s view of her value. For her part, Couric has been able to maintain a solid audience online despite the fact Yahoo hasn’t exactly done much to showcase her on its primary promotional spots, the homepage and search. Moreover, the company’s decidedly mixed track record on content speaks for itself.

Couric has been busy as the election cycle goes into overdrive, having generated more than 18 million views for coverage of the Republican National Convention last week. Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Marsha Blackburn, Bob Dole, and more were among the newsmakers she interviewed.

But with Couric’s contract expiration on the horizon, her expensive salary may emerge as the first litmus test as to what Verizon’s content strategy will be.