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Couric’s job change may require image change

Poll shows viewers prefer staying at ‘Today,’ but move may be at right time
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fifteen years ago, when Katie Couric first sat next to Bryant Gumbel as anchor of the "Today" show, she was introduced as "Katherine."

That name was quickly replaced by the friendly — dare we say perky — appellation more suited to morning television.

Now that Couric is moving into the job once held by Walter Cronkite, that name change symbolizes the challenge she faces assuming a serious role after a job that often required her to do frivolous things.

According to a new poll by The Associated Press and TV Guide, most people prefer to see Couric in the morning. Asked if they would rather see Couric as "Today" host or as the first woman to anchor a network weekday evening newscast on her own, 49 percent favored the morning and 29 percent said evening, according to a poll conducted this week by The Associated Press and TV Guide.

Couric told her "Today" viewers Wednesday that she was leaving to become anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" this fall. She'll remain on "Today" until May, and NBC appeared close to hiring Meredith Vieira to replace her.

"Sometimes I think change is a good thing," Couric said on "Today." "Although it may be terrifying to get out of your comfort zone, it's very exciting to start a new chapter in your life."

Couric's morning job required her to interview everyone from presidents to preening celebrities to a runaway bride. She played badminton on Rockefeller Plaza and dressed like Donald Trump on Halloween. Some critics have questioned whether those skills translate well to a job that primarily involves reading news headlines and presiding when big news strikes.

"If we have another (terrorist) attack or hurricane and need lifesaving information, I think her image is that of more fluff than fact and that's going to have an impact," said Jeff Alan, author of "Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News."

Barbara Fleming, 62, of Columbus, Ohio, was among the majority of poll respondents who said she preferred that Couric stayed on mornings. Although Couric is good at interviews, "mostly I see her in an entertainment role," Fleming said.

Others believe that three hours a day of live broadcasting covering a wide swath of topics has more than prepared her for the CBS job. Accusations that Couric lacks the "gravitas" for the job are "thinly disguised sexism," said news consultant Andrew Tyndall.

Few questioned Tom Brokaw's seriousness when he switched from a "Today" host in the 1970s to become NBC's longtime top anchor. At ABC, Charles Gibson frequently did the morning and evening newscasts on the same day this past year during Peter Jennings' illness and death.

"This relationship (with viewers) will be different — it's a more serious, more weighty and more important position," said Charlotte Grimes, journalism professor at Syracuse University. "It's going to take a different set of skills."

She's clearly been able to handle the hard news part of her morning job, Tyndall said. However, those responsibilities have diminished in recent years in favor of the less serious morning work, he said.

"If she wants to end her career as a serious journalist, she has to make the change now," he said. "Five years from now would be too late."

Despite the public's initial wariness, the poll suggests that Couric is making the transition at a good time. More than half of those polled, 55 percent, have a favorable view of Couric. That's comparable to the good feelings expressed for NBC "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and current CBS anchor Bob Schieffer, while higher than ABC's Elizabeth Vargas.

Only veteran broadcaster Diane Sawyer of ABC's "Good Morning America" received higher marks than Couric, with more than seven in 10 viewing her favorably. About half of the respondents say they are likely to tune in and see Couric in her new role, but the poll suggested the immediate impact on steady viewership may be limited.

The poll of 615 adults was taken Monday and Tuesday and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Couric, 49, grew up in journalism backstage at CNN, and joined NBC as a Pentagon reporter in 1989. By April 1991, she was installed next to Bryant Gumbel to wipe away the stain of Deborah Norville's disastrously brief tenure.

It was a master stroke that earned hundreds of millions for NBC and its parent General Electric Corp. Couric, paired with Lauer since 1997, will leave next month as the longest-serving "Today" host in the show's 54-year history. The show is in the 11th year of an unprecedented ratings winning streak.

Her success helped pave the career rise of Jeff Zucker, once Couric's executive producer and now, as CEO of the NBC Universal Television Group, responsible for overseeing a smooth transition at "Today."

"There comes a time for everyone, when new challenges become hard to resist, and I fully understand that," Zucker said. "I couldn't be happier for Katie."

Couric turned down an offer of around $20 million a year to stay at NBC in order to take CBS' five-year deal at near her current annual salary of about $15 million, according to people close to negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because networks do not disclose salaries. She's also agreed to do "60 Minutes" stories and prime-time specials for CBS. The lure of making history in the evening — and no more pre-dawn wake-up calls — proved irresistible.

CBS clearly hopes she's a star who can give a bright new face to its last-place news division, attract younger viewers and inject life into a hidebound TV format.

The network also hopes Couric encourages other news stars to come to CBS — the same formula that CBS Corp. President Leslie Moonves used to revive the entertainment division and Sean McManus did for CBS Sports.

Ironically, with Schieffer filling in for the past year, the "CBS Evening News" is growing its audience — unlike NBC and ABC.

The conversational style that Schieffer has brought to the broadcast, where he frequently questions correspondents on-air about their stories, will continue with Couric. A new set, new graphics and a more contemporary style will also be fashioned around her in time for a September debut, the network said.

"I couldn't be happier," said Schieffer, whose future role — if any — in the broadcast was unclear Wednesday. "Katie and I have been friends for years. She's going to be a terrific addition to CBS News. I think we're going to love Katie and I think Katie's going to love us."

Look for him to greet new colleague Katie — not Katherine — Couric.

"Did they ever call Brokaw Thomas Brokaw?" Tyndall asked. "You don't go back. It would seem like you're disavowing the last 15 years of your life."