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Katie Couric says she's leaving ‘Today’

On her 15th anniversary on "Today," Katie Couric told viewers Wednesday she's leaving to join CBS and become the first woman to solely anchor a network evening newscast.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Katie Couric on Wednesday confirmed numerous reports that she would leave NBC and join CBS, where she is set to become first solo female anchor in weekday evening network news history.

“I wanted to tell all of you out there who have watched the show for the past 15 years that after listening to my heart and my gut — two things that have served me pretty well in the past — I’ve decided I’ll be leaving ‘Today’ at the end of May,” she . “I really feel as if we’ve become friends through the years.”

Couric, 49, will replace Bob Schieffer on the “CBS Evening News,” beginning in September, CBS confirmed in a statement. As both anchor and managing editor of the program, which will bear her name, she will take on the responsibility of hoisting it from its current third-place ratings.

She agreed to a salary near her current range of $13 million to $15 million for five years, the Associated Press reported, citing a non-network person close to Couric.

Her announcement draws to a close seemingly endless rounds of speculation in media circles, and came on a momentous day: the 15th anniversary of her first day as “Today” co-host in 1991. “Today” ran a clip of her first day with then co-host Bryant Gumbel, which Couric joked was “172 hairstyles” ago.

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

“It’s hard to imagine being here and not having you sitting next to us,” co-host Matt Lauer told her.

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NBC news personnel also commented on the change. "Katie is a friend of many years, and a gifted broadcaster,” said NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams. “While I am losing her as an NBC News colleague, I am gaining an able new competitor. I want to welcome Katie to the evening shift and I look forward to competing with my friend as we all continue to cover the stories that matter, all over the world, each night, for years to come." 

Former anchor and NBC Nightly News managing editor Tom Brokaw said of Couric's decision, "As I told Katie privately and on the air, this is an exciting new time for her and I wish her all the best.  She has no illusions about the challenges ahead and she's eager to take them on. We'll miss her at NBC News, but as Katie and I know, this great organization has always been about much more than one or two people."

For NBC, her departure presents a challenge. Couric has served as the show's longest-running co-anchor and she, along with Lauer, newsreader Ann Curry and weathercaster Al Roker, have formed TV news’ most successful morning team. Their combined appeal has helped “Today” enjoy an unprecedented 10-year streak at the top of the ratings.

Bob Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal, said Couric “has had an immensely positive impact both on this company and on the public at large.”

“I've been fortunate to call Katie a friend and a colleague, and I can't thank her enough for what she has brought to NBC,” Wright continued in a statement.

“I never would have dreamed that we would be lucky enough to have her on the program as long as we have,” added Jeff Zucker, the network's CEO and Couric's producer when she became a “Today” correspondent in 1990. “But there comes a time for everyone, when new challenges become hard to resist, and I fully understand that. I couldn't be happier for Katie.”

A successor?The move simultaneously forces NBC to find a new team for “Today,” television’s most profitable news program, and gives CBS News President Sean McManus a major success in his effort to lure more stars to his beleaguered news organization.

Meredith Vieira of the daytime chat show “The View” has emerged as the leading candidate to team with Lauer. Vieira, a former CBS News reporter who won a Daytime Emmy as host of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” had previously turned down offers to return to news since joining “The View.”  The New York Times reported that a $10 million-per-year deal with Vieira was expected to be done by week's end.

An NBC spokeswoman would not comment on succession plans.

During Couric's reign atop the ratings, morning news shows have both grown in influence and expanded their entertainment and soft-news offerings. The “Today” job required Couric to interview presidents in one hour and helm cooking segments the next. It also demanded a draining five-day-a-week schedule that required her to wake up well before dawn.

“Today” is currently seen by about 6 million viewers a day. While the “CBS Evening News” has been averaging upwards of 7.5 million, it lags far behind NBC's evening effort, anchored by Brian Williams, which draws nearly 10 million each night. In a statement, McManus called Couric a “key ingredient” in his efforts to regain a No. 1 slot.

“Katie is simply one of the best in the business and represents a tremendous addition to CBS News,” said CBS president and CEO Les Moonves.

‘I think the world of her’Couric’s contract with NBC, owned by General Electric Co., extends to the end of May and she’s expected to remain at “Today” through that sweeps month.

The lure of trying something new and making history in the evening proved enticing to Couric, who is also expected to contribute to “60 Minutes.” She spurned a more lucrative offer — about $20 million a year — to remain at NBC and accept the CBS Corp. offer, the person close to Couric said.

It’s not the first time an anchor has made the transition from morning to evening; NBC’s longtime “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw was a “Today” show host in the 1970s. Another “Today” personality, Barbara Walters, briefly co-anchored ABC’s evening news with Harry Reasoner.

With Schieffer filling in during the year since Dan Rather’s exit, the “CBS Evening News” is the only network evening newscast rising in the ratings. But it’s still in third place behind NBC and ABC.

“I will be delighted if she came,” Schieffer said Tuesday. “I think she’ll be a great addition to a very good news team. ... I’ve known Katie for years and I think the world of her.”

If a deal with Vieira can’t be reached, the top in-house candidates to replace Couric are “Today” weekend anchor Campbell Brown, NBC reporter Natalie Morales and newsreader Curry.