Katie Couric was in a position of strength five years ago — the last time she faced a career crossroads. The choices were to join CBS News and become the first sole woman anchor of a network evening newscast for $15 million a year, or stay at NBC, where the TODAY show host could make even more money.
Her next choice is likely to be fraught with more risk, and may not truly be hers.
Last week Jeff Fager, the behind-the-scenes boss of "60 Minutes," was appointed CBS News chairman with Bloomberg's David Rhodes his right-hand man. Their first major issue is likely to be whether Couric remains as the network's top anchor after her current contract expires at the end of May.
Either they're very good at keeping secrets, or CBS and Couric really don't know what will happen. What seems pretty certain is that the status quo — Couric delivering the evening news at her eight-figure annual salary — won't continue.
Couric has discussed the syndicated talk show market with her good friend and former colleague, ex-NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Zucker. A shorter-term extension with CBS to stay put, at least through the 2012 election, is possible, as is a move to cable where other big TV personalities have found homes, such as Oprah Winfrey, Conan O'Brien and Martha Stewart. Of course, the Web is yet another alternative for Couric in today's marketplace.
"If everyone is smart, she'll stay right where she is for less money," said David Westin, the recently departed ABC News president. "Whatever somebody says about it, this is a prestigious platform. After an initial rocky start, it's a solid news program."
Couric came to the evening news burning with ideas about how to change the format, many to tailor the "CBS Evening News" to her strengths as an interviewer. Viewers soundly rejected that approach, forcing her into a more traditional evening newscast.
She has won industry respect for her performance, and her newscast won four Emmys and a DuPont Award last year. The business verdict is cold and clear, however. She's third in the time slot behind NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Diane Sawyer, and it's not close. Last week CBS' average of 6.4 million viewers was 2.4 million behind second-place ABC, the Nielsen Co. said.
Two other industry experts — former NBC News executive Bill Wheatley and ex-CBS News anchor Dan Rather — both stressed the importance of Couric taking a hard look at whether the job makes her happy.
"It all gets down to what's inside her," Rather said. "If she loves covering news and thinks it's important and she has a passion to do that, then the money is not going to mean that much above a certain figure."
Couric's salary caused some consternation at CBS even five years ago, but corporate executives thought they were buying a chance to turn around years of ratings failure. Clearly, that's not happening, and with the economy knocking down the salaries of TV talents, Couric's current deal is that much more difficult to justify.
Cutting salaries, however, is always hard.
"It's difficult enough to do it just as a matter of ego, because whether we want to believe it or not, our egos are tied up in how much money we make," said Westin, who quietly negotiated salary cuts for ABC News on-screen personalities over the past few years. "But it's doubly difficult if it's going to be out in the press."
Another ego issue is whether ending Couric's tenure now would be an admission of failure for both her and CBS Corp. Chairman Leslie Moonves, two prideful personalities.
But it may be reality. Five years into the job, there are still concerns within CBS News about whether the anchor job is the best use of Couric's talents, and whether she can ever increase the broadcast's audience. CBS hoped some viewers would switch to its side a year ago when Sawyer took over at ABC's "World News." It didn't happen.
Having a platform on TV's pre-eminent news magazine, "60 Minutes," where Fager will continue to be executive producer, was considered an important factor in Couric's jump to CBS. Nearly five months in, Couric hasn't had any stories on "60 Minutes" this season. While too much could be read into that — she has a busy day job, after all, and does work for "Sunday Morning" and the Web — it can't be what either CBS or Couric envisioned when she joined the network.
"She's got to find a place where her interview skills are used," said Tammy Haddad, a veteran TV producer who worked with Couric in the 1990s. "She has that rare ability to make something happen every time she interviews somebody and every time she's on-screen."
Couric's former TODAY partner, Bryant Gumbel, created his own niche with his well-respected "Real Sports" show on HBO, Haddad noted.
CBS could still be the right home, particularly since the company is strong in the syndication market, and could offer a combination of opportunities.
"Katie is very proud of the award-winning accomplishments of her team at CBS," said her spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik. "While the speculation is flattering, she has not made any decisions about her future."
Before cutting Couric loose, CBS would have to seriously consider who would take over at the evening news, since there is no obvious successor. Scott Pelley is one possibility, or the underutilized Harry Smith. So is the youthful Jeff Glor, who anchored CBS' special report last week when Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egyptian president.
There's no obvious candidate with Couric's star power.
"When you make a change like this, you run the risk of losing audience and losing prestige," Westin said. "The easiest thing to do is lose both at the same time."
The coming departures of Winfrey and Regis Philbin leave opportunities in the daytime talk arena. There's money in that market, and incredible risk. "Today" show predecessor Jane Pauley, whose daytime show came and went in the blink of an eye, can tell Couric a few stories about that.
It may also require some compromises. "I know Katie well enough to know that she would be uncomfortable with some of the topics that these talk shows deal with," Wheatley said.
Couric knows and trusts Zucker, her former producer at "Today," and if he wanted to get back into the business with her, that could be a powerful incentive, Westin said.
"A lot of this business comes down to 'who do you trust, who do you believe in,'" he said. "Particularly if you're a person who's exposed like Katie is, and this is true of any of the major anchors, they feel the need to have somebody in the executive suite who has their back, that will not just sacrifice them."