Katie Couric will announce her intention to leave NBC on the Today show the morning of April 5, according to a source with knowledge of the network’s plans.
The announcement will come at 7:30 a.m., amid on-air festivities marking Ms. Couric’s 15th anniversary with Today. Staffers said that a highlight reel of her work has been prepared for the occasion. Chances are there will be cake.
And then, after one last fizzy morning party, Ms. Couric will be on her way to anchor the CBS Evening News. A corresponding announcement from CBS will come later in the morning, according to a source familiar with CBS’s plans.
News of the pending Today announcement was broken by The Hollywood Reporter’s Web site the evening of April 4.
The job switch has been a barely concealed secret for weeks, if not months. “This is Katie’s job,” Bob Schieffer, the interim anchor of the Evening News, told The Observer on April 4. “She’s going to have her ideas of how to do it, and I think she’ll do it well.”
Mr. Schieffer was jumping the gun, but only a little. Ms. Couric’s plans had become tacit knowledge in and around the television industry: public wisdom, only without the public.
The announcement would cap a veiled but intense image-management campaign on Ms. Couric’s behalf—with accompanying behind-the-scenes pushback by representatives of her present and future employers. And if one side of the exchange was pushing the message that Ms. Couric was a broadcast lightweight, her own operation showed her to be a heavyweight in the profession.
Mr. Schieffer’s prophecy was also a statement of accomplished fact. Ms. Couric did have ideas about how to do her next job.
As the switch goes through, inquiring reporters will have plenty to ask about. Already there are factions, or the rumors of them. Executives at CBS have anonymously questioned the morning-show anchor’s fitness to work at night, and some higher-ups, particularly at 60 Minutes, are worried that Ms. Couric’s not worth the money, according to three network sources.
“There are some people here who think it’s a marvelous idea, and some people here who maybe don’t think it’s a marvelous idea,” Mr. Schieffer said. “I think, by and large, people are pretty excited about it.”
Ms. Couric has an entourage of approximately five producers, mostly from Dateline, whom she plans to bring with her, according to two high-level NBC sources.
Beyond the debates about whether a chipper morning anchorwoman can make suitably serious faces at the evening cameras, there’s the question of what Ms. Couric’s full role at the CBS Evening News will be. Will she be a true managing editor, running meetings and setting news agendas like the men who came before her? Or will she be a pretty headline-reader—“perky,” to use her least-favorite word—the network equivalent of a shiny hood ornament on a rusty Cadillac?
“She would never take a job as a hood ornament,” said Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News, who oversaw the Dan Rather memo debacle and who considers Ms. Couric a personal friend. “She’s certainly someone with very seasoned judgment and very strong instincts about journalism, about television. She’s a superstar.
“What you do behind the scenes on the CBS Evening News is very important,” Mr. Heyward added. “It’s probably an exaggeration to say it is as or more important than what you do on air, but it is very important.”
Still, a perception battle loomed. There was the briefing book that Ms. Couric’s personal spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik of Freud Communications, had been passing around recently. The 15-page document laid out Ms. Couric’s qualifications to be a news anchor, for the benefit of reporters who would eventually write about Ms. Couric becoming the Evening News anchor. It included a graph, a table and copious bullet-pointed citations of previous media reports on Ms. Couric’s achievements.
Mr. Hiltzik declined to comment about any specific research into his client. “Katie’s extraordinary career speaks for itself,” he said.
So Mr. Hiltzik was putting it into the conversation before the conversation ever moved into the open.
And thus speculation became informed speculation, which became highly, highly informed speculation. “It’s because of cozy relationships between people like you and people like me,” one network executive said of the tone of the Couric coverage. “Everybody winks and nods instead of actually telling you anything for sure, because they don’t know what else to do.”
On April 2, Television Week finally broke the buzzing silence by declaring that a deal between Ms. Couric and CBS was done “in principle.” By April 4, the story was moving: “close to a conclusion” (The New York Times), “NBC executives expect” her departure (The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal), “98 percent done” (The Philadelphia Inquirer).
And the fruits of the public-relations campaign were on display. “After a 15-year run at Today in which Couric has interviewed everyone from President Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell to Bill Gates, Donald Trump and O.J. Simpson, her hard-news background is hardly in doubt,” wrote Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz.
All six of those names appear in the briefing book, on a list of Ms. Couric’s major interviews, broken down by category. The first three are on page 2, under “Heads of State and World Leaders” or “American Political Leaders”; the others are on page 3, with Mr. Gates and Mr. Trump under “Business Leaders” and Mr. Simpson under “Controversial Figures and Events.”
In fact, Ms. Couric’s hard-news background is precisely what is in doubt, as she prepares to leave the cheerful TV sunrise for the serious sunset hours. But there is precedent for such a switch. The Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold pointed out that “other broadcasters have successfully made a similar transition from morning to evening,” including former Today anchor Tom Brokaw.
For other comparisons between Mr. Brokaw and Ms. Couric, with attention to their facility with “hard news,” see page 11 of the briefing book, which quotes analyst Andrew Tyndall telling People magazine in 2000 that “[p]eople who are champions of Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings would say that she’s not as good on hard news. But she has proved she can stand up to people and ask the tough questions.”
Ms. Couric, in other words, set about beating back the challenge to her anchor credentials before there was even an anchor appointment for anyone to openly challenge.
Almost a year ago, a wave of rough treatment in the press had begun to hit her, starting with a notorious April piece by New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley describing the sinister click of Ms. Couric’s stilettos. Ms. Couric felt that NBC’s media-relations department had done little to shield her, and in November, under the auspices of needing help with her philanthropic work, she hired Mr. Hiltzik to handle her personal P.R.
Having done work for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Hiltzik was accustomed to dealing with a job switch that dare not speak its name. He also has the not irrelevant experience of doing hard time for Harvey Weinstein.
“It’s always helpful to have relevant information readily accessible for inquiring reporters,” Mr. Hiltzik said.
The briefing book makes a subtle but definite argument about one aspect of Ms. Couric’s behind-the-scenes performance. The period during which Ms. Stanley painted her portrait of Ms. Couric as an office shrew was a strained time at Today. Perennial second-place show Good Morning America was creeping within 45,000 viewers of the top. Executive producer Tom Touchet was fired, with Ms. Couric widely believed to have had a hand in the decision. Doors were slammed.
The briefing book, however, makes a point of tracking the ratings week by week through the strife and beyond—from “Decline Gets Worse” to “Rebound Begins” to a triumphant, boldface-and-large-font “Return to Dominance” in December. What was a crisis becomes a study in crisis management, an instance of clear-headed newsroom leadership worthy of the occupant of Walter Cronkite’s chair.
If anything, the strategy may have anticipated more backlash than seems to be forthcoming. NBC in particular seems to be playing nice, with president Jeff Zucker signing off on the decision to let Ms. Couric stage her on-air announcement.
It may help that her agent, Alan Berger of Creative Artists, has longstanding ties with NBC and used to represent Mr. Zucker. “Everybody has been through this dance before,” one NBC executive said. “I don’t think there’s gonna be any real bloodletting. The last time [Ms. Couric’s contract came up], there was a lot of hand-wringing about whether she was going to go. Now it’s sort of like, ‘Been there, done that.’”
Then comes the matter of who will take over Today. There are three leading candidates: current Today anchorettes Campbell Brown and Natalie Morales, and 60 Minutes veteran and perceived front-runner Meredith Vieira.
“The concerns are: Can Campbell warm up? Is Natalie credible?” said one NBC producer. “Each have their camps, but the politicking is over. A decision has been made. There’s a Plan A, which is Meredith Vieira, and a Plan B, and nobody knows for certain what that is, except a few folks—and maybe they don’t even know.”
Ms. Couric, for her part, will inherit a chair kept warm by the warmest man in television news. The job is largely hers to define, and Mr. Schieffer vowed not to offer unsolicited advice, but she is inheriting a certain tradition of leadership.
“I think you have to be the leader, and the way to do that is, I think, to make sure everybody knows that you’re really interested, that you’re very competitive and that you’re not going to accept secondhand work,” he said.
When he moved into the anchor office, which looks over the Evening News newsroom, Mr. Schieffer removed the blinds from the windows and started keeping his door open—little things, he said, that made the staff feel they could come to him. “Most of the time, you don’t have to tell people what to do. When you’re the anchor, I think people watch you. The way you conduct yourself sets the tone for the organization.”
But ultimately, “a news program is about the news,” he said. “It’s not about some individual; it’s about the news. And when it is—why, then you do well.”
Donald Rumsfeld arrived early for the 62nd annual Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner on March 29. And like his Bush administration colleagues, he went straight to the Fox News Channel pre-party, where he made a beeline for Roger Ailes.
Mr. Ailes was already occupied, wedged between Bo Derek and the buffet in the tent outside the Washington Hilton. So Mr. Rumsfeld took a minute to talk with Fox and Friends anchor Brian Kilmeade.
“Hi, Mr. Secretary,” Mr. Kilmeade said. “How are you?”
“Hey,” Mr. Rumsfeld shouted. “I know you!” The Secretary of Defense did a little dance of recognition. Then he adjusted Mr. Kilmeade’s silver patterned bowtie.
“How’s the wrestling world?” Mr. Kilmeade asked. He might have been saying “rest of the world”—a photographer pushed into the scene at the critical moment, murmuring, “Where’s Wolfowitz? Have you seen Wolfowitz?”
Paul Wolfowitz, the president of the World Bank, was in the corner, next to an elegant display of white roses, chatting up Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “The whole State Department is here,” said Pat Harrison, a White House employee, gesturing toward Josh Bolten, the President’s brand-new chief of staff. Mr. Rumsfeld, meanwhile, was wrapping up with Mr. Kilmeade. A minder mouthed, “I’m trying to get him to Roger.”
“Yep, still playing squash,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “That’s great—great,” said Mr. Kilmeade.
Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Ailes would have plenty of chances to talk at dinner, where they were seated one chair apart, at the Fox News Channel’s head table in the Hilton’s grand ballroom. NYTV finally caught up with Mr. Ailes there, interrupting his chat with Mr. Rumsfeld. “I’m having a great time,” he said, and that was all he said before being besieged with other enthusiastic statesmen, eager to shake his hand.
NYTV lined up at the dinner-entry metal detectors, two places in front of Bill Frist, who was accompanied by two aides.
“It’s nice that everyone gets so dressed up,” said the Senate Majority Leader. Most in attendance were conservatively dressed, the women in tasteful floor-length gowns, the men in standard tuxes.
“Well, they are television people,” one of his aides said. Mr. Frist was then whisked out of line by security personnel, to be deposited later up on the dais. About this time, next to the metal detectors, a private conference occurred in hushed tones between L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. “Consider it sent,” Mr. Williams said, and the two separated.
Mr. Williams had appeared earlier in the day on NBC’s Washington affiliate, opposite anchor Pat Lawson Muse. While waiting in line, Ms. Lawson characterized the visit: “He came in and he was very clear about it,” she said. “He said, ‘The only reason I’m here is to come to this damn party.’”
And there was the party: full of tributes and the usual discomfiting displays of camaraderie between journalists and the people they cover. Vice President Dick Cheney was at ease enough to spoof that business about shooting his hunting companion in the face, as well as his administration’s foreign policy and his unsubtle disdain for the press, all of whom laughed heartily and applauded his self-deprecation.
Describing that relationship, Mr. Cheney said, “Let’s work on this bridge to nowhere!” To which Ted Stevens, the Senator from Alaska and advocate of the now-fabled $450 million “bridge to nowhere” project, pumped his fist twice in the air from his seat onstage.
There were touching moments: a video tribute to Peter Jennings; the presentation of an award to ABC World News Tonight anchor Bob Woodruff by the young twin daughters of David Bloom, an NBC correspondent and close friend to the Woodruff family, who died three years ago in Iraq; a few speeches about the power of the press; and the singing of the national anthem. NYTV stood next to Richard Perle during this rendition, close enough to learn that this architect of the Iraq war has a soft and lovely baritone.
Also at NYTV’s table—sponsored by Fox News—were Arlen Specter, Mr. Bolten and Roy Spence, an Austin native, advertising mogul and proud Democrat. At the next table over, a CNN-designated table, Madeleine Albright sat between CNN president Jon Klein and CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman. Behind them were Mr. Ailes and Mr. Rumsfeld. Many, many rows behind them was the Al Jazeera table. In the far corner, in the shadows, with an obstructed view of the stage, were the two PBS tables. “It’s the only table we could afford,” said John Wilson, PBS’s senior vice president of programming.
The night ended early for most. After dinner, the Hilton basement played host to two overcrowded parties, one for NBC and one for CNN. The latter—theme: “Club CNN”—was thought to be the hot ticket this year; Fox, known in past years for its outrageous, all-night post-parties, had announced it would not be throwing one. Wolf Blitzer was outside the CNN party. “It’s fantastic,” he said.
NYTV found Mr. Klein inside the party, standing by one of many bars, and complemented him on his network’s raucous throwdown.
“Thankfully, I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
How did it compare to Fox’s parties of yore?
“They’re so yesterday,” he said.
Actually, Fox was having a super-exclusive after-party off-site, at a Washington club called Eyebar. Word of the party hit the blogosphere early in the day and, come midnight, the bar would be packed with young aspirants as well as older notables.
Mr. Klein received the news. “Oh,” he said. “God, they’re so secretive.”